by Greg Forshaw
“Can I show you something?” she asked him in fluent if flat English, having come out into the primal light of July in Sicily from the gloom below the strangler fig.
Surprised, Sean said, “Of course.”
But she’d already stepped off the gingery cinder path and was disappearing fast. South he trailed her, through various glades of the world, till she entered a glasshouse in the shape of a star. It had the heat of one also when Sean plunged in. Finding neither the woman nor any relief from the furnace outside, he felt sweat all over like a tight velvet suit on inside out.
“Hello?” Sean called.
She was the first person he’d seen since passing through the imposing gates of the gardens. Was this some tourist scam? Along with the rest of the team, Sean had been warned about the city’s pickpockets, the unease in Palermo as everywhere during the crisis, and the districts you’d have avoided even before that, which included this high-walled one.
“Here I am,” she said, suddenly beside him. “Give me your hand.” Her eyes were as sharp and green as the leaves of the tall plant before them. Sean extended his right hand. She took it and brushed his index finger down the spine of a leaf. It retracted. Weird to see this rebuke to touch, a plant acting like a person, if not this person who continued to hold him.
“Again,” Sean said. A second leaf duly curled away from them.
“Too sensitive,” the woman said. She released his hand and with her own undid the trick, freeing the curls with the tip of her index finger.
How pretty was she? Sean couldn’t tell, couldn’t take her all in, had only just noticed that below her intricate floral dress her feet were bare, summer-brown, the nails unvarnished. Her feet, her hands – they weren’t interior like a girl’s, but of the world. They knew things. Things he wanted to know.
“Would you show me something else?” Sean asked.
She paused. “‘There are no apples now.”
“We still have them back home, just,” he made himself remember. A pain no worse than the pang in his stomach. Sean hadn’t eaten since breakfast and night was falling.
“I thought this place would be shutting.”
“Listen, forget the show and tell. Do you want to go out for something to eat?”
“There’s no need,” the woman said, and led him unerringly to a grove of fruit trees where she plucked a pear.
“Is it safe?”
She smiled in the half light, and he trusted her.
The pear’s bare smell umbrellaed into ambrosial taste, flavor like fruit used to have when there were seasons, juice cutting through the sweat on his chin. She collected the drop before it fell, so free with him. Sean said, “It’s good to be here and not home. Which reminds me, how did you know I was English?”
“Where did you learn the language?”
“Here,” she said. “‘the English took their turn, after the Spanish, the Normans, the Arabs, the Romans, the Greeks.”
“Yes, the history’s why I came. We’re digging a site near the Villa Lampedusa, finding a lot of bone fragments and edged tools.”
“And does that please you?”
“Dirt’s dirt and I’m bored of it,” Sean said. “I thought these gardens might make a change. Change pleases me. As does being on holiday.”
So her English wasn’t perfect, and Sean’s Italian hadn’t gotten beyond swearing. “You know, time off? Time away from home?”
Whatever was being lost in translation, as long as it wasn’t her, didn’t matter. They were still standing touch-close and he didn’t want to sit, to settle apart.
“If you’re not hungry,” Sean said, “how about a drink then? You can show me your city.”
“It’s not mine.”
Of course. She was probably a tourist too.
“You really don’t want to come out tonight?”
“No,” the woman said.
Even the most persistent of salesmen will count three rebuttals as a no. “Oh, okay.”
“But I’ll be here tomorrow.”
“I’ll see if I can get away,” Sean said.
She showed him to a side door on a wall so overgrown it was a garden in its own right, but didn’t herself leave. Sean found it oddly like stepping from inside to out when he re-entered the traffic-blackened city. Teens on scooters, almost everyone else in cars, in jams, in the narrow Arab streets, their engines, stereos, horns joined in hymn to modernity, each trapped driver beeping the motorist before him, who reciprocated, a crescendo to no end except to express their true untrapped selves.
The following morning Sean told the team leader, Sal, that his stomach was a little iffy after their supper of pasta con le sarde.
“Yes, that’s the risk, Sean. Everyone else seems fine.”
“Maybe it’s the mosquitoes, or just me and seafood even before the crisis.” Excused, Sean waved off the team’s pick-up truck and, through streets stretched on the rack of the sun and empty of other pedestrians but neck-deep in their black bin-bagged detritus, he returned to the gardens. On entering its high-walled shade, Sean realised he had been feeling unwell until now.
That road accident hadn’t helped, he mused. One mozzie of a scooter had buzzed its last oncoming lorry. Worse, the trucker had leapt from the cab not to aid but to beat the downed teen. And Sean had watched on, a million miles away, just as a member of a nesting bird colony abided predation on a neighbour’s young. Some line was being crossed in Palermo and it couldn’t be the crisis, not the Ug99 grain virus or the honey bee mite.
Sean eased through the flora of Mexico, South Africa, and Australia not quite finding her but enjoying the quick green lizards, the slow brown terrapins, the rainbow of butterflies. Life everywhere when you looked. And then she was beside him.
“Hello again, Englishman.”
“My name’s Sean. What’s yours?”
“So what are we going to see today?”
“Follow me,” Hespera said, and stepped off swift in that lovely gazelle way of hers.
Far they went, and upwards, though the gardens hadn’t seemed so large from the outside or so contoured, until Hespera crested a ridge and pointed. The city had fallen into a fold of land, and over the plains of the Conca d’Oro Sean saw only the rise of Monreale. Atop the mountain, some trick of light or distance had ignited the cathedral’s eight-hundred year old dome, and it burned like a beacon.
This heat upon heat served mainly to increase Sean’s thirst, as he’d long since drained his bottle of water and sweated it out again.
“I don’t suppose there’s a spring handy, Hespera?”
They walked nearly as far to a grove of sycamores in a clearing of which was a pool: flat like nothing else in this landscape, and deep-gleaming. Sean half expected to find it relaying a reflection of a world on fire, but there wasn’t light enough to see even his own head as he lowered it and drank till his veins ran watery. Sean filled his bottle for later. Come sunset, though, having ranged the gardens and found no two glades alike, no two colors either, the firework-pink of hibiscus, the ocean-blue of hydrangea, come dark Sean could almost understand why she again didn’t want to go out with him.
“Really, Hespera? I know the city’s a bit rough right now but it’s no worse than any other.” They were poised by the side door.
“I can’t be there, Sean, only here.”
“You can’t? Are you hiding?” Which would explain that earthiness of Hespera’s: the dirt haloing her fingernails, the crazed hair.
“My home is here, Sean. Your people don’t understand, Sean.”
“I don’t have a people.”
“But I do, or I did,” Hespera said. “My kind have come and gone.”
As had closing time. Dusk was dropping and he was hungry again and the mosquitoes were hungrier, but she was telling him something. Stalling a moment, Sean took out his bottle. Without trick of light or distance he saw that the water was a deep silken red. He was thirsty, however.
“Your kind?” Sean said. “You mean you’re not my kind, Hespera? You’re not?”
Not bothered by the mozzies; not bothering the sensitive plant the day they’d met; not wearing a floral dress but a dress made of flowers, he now saw: primroses, the bouquet pouring the scent of an antique truth into his brain. Sean slumped against the wall and sank to the ground, leaving her standing over him. He looked up, awe dawning.
“So what are you, Hespera?” he almost whispered.
“My sisters and I were charged with tending this garden and its orchard. Then Atlas took what was only to be given, stole the golden apples, and the trees withered. Their hundred-headed guardian left. As did my sisters, though quitting is the death of us in the stories I’ve overheard.”
“That’s the Atlas?”
“He thought so. Or maybe the thief was Heracles? I forget. I barely remember that Hera, who owned the garden, was our mother. Forgetting is what I do best, is how I live on. But enough of my time here. Tell me about things that don’t endure, Sean. Real things.”
“I’m struggling a little right now with what’s real, Hespera.”
“Computers, concrete, cars: I’ve overheard of them all.”
“I asked where you were going, if not to my world’s-end party.”
“For some air?”
“At least that’s not proscribed. You’re so calm, Sean. What’s your secret? Where do you go, really?”
“Really nowhere. Enjoy your party.”
The less Sal – or anyone else – knew about the gardens, the better. Sean even drove the team’s truck with its headlights off, though most of the streets were now unlit. Closed, or closing, the whole city. Those jams he’d noticed – was it yesterday? – were actually queues from the since-shuttered petrol stations. Sean eventually found Hespera as requested at a wide enough entrance, the closest he’d seen her to the outside.
He pushed on inside, and the gardens greeted the pick-up, were straining, fragrant. This was no time to breathe in however. Leaving the engine running, Sean had to jump out to ask her, “Where are the padlocks?”
She was consumed by the truck, the gleaming rum-jumble of it, running a hand down its shivering flank.
She didn’t know. Not about the padlocks, but about the need for them, about the world. Not that Sean knew. Nevertheless he wanted to protect her from it. Once Sean had the entrance secured, he lowered the pickup’s tailgate then clapped his hands and laced them together. “Hup! he said.
Ignoring Sean, she vaulted up.
“Mind the jerry cans, Hespera. There are some cushions by the cab, as the shocks are shot. I’ll go slow.”
Or not too fast anyway. They swayed off down the barely ample cinder path. No, not that fast, just pedal enough to disarray her senses. And his, driving those narrow unknowns in the near dark. As his confidence increased, so too did his speed.
He beeped the horn in response and Hespera couldn’t say more for smiling. She sprang to the back of the truck to dangle her gazelle legs over the side. The look on her face before she leapt – you never want your girl to lose that. Wait. His girl? Now they were going too fast. He was. But Sean felt no need to switch pedals.
Near a grove of mandarin trees they lay down beside each other, having parked the pick-up, though he’d left on the lights and the radio. Not for the news. Coming from it wasn’t clear which country, the music was choral and had a kick like a tachy heart. When Hespera began to harmonise with it, a singing that wasn’t quite song through the darkness that wasn’t quite dark, Sean felt lit up inside and wanted to have her any way he could.
“Is there somewhere we can go, Hespera?”
“Where we can be together, if we can, if you want.”
“Only here,” she said.
Not that there was any risk. As he’d seen, the gardens were theirs. Plus the place had seemed like inside earlier, yesterday, was it? So beneath the susurrus of stars Sean breathed in the mandarin-scented air and began by freeing the curls of her crazed hair with his fingertips.
Sean awoke alone, on the dewy grass, feeling that many days had passed. The pick-up’s battery was flat so he had to walk back to the hotel. This proved lucky, for the roads were dammed three and four deep with other abandoned vehicles. Truck or no the team’s site visits were certainly over.
“Digging for history even as we became it!” Sal said.
He’d gathered everyone together that evening in the hotel bar, drunk dry while Sean had slept.
Sal went on, “Just to confirm the rumors, there are blogs about drownings in the Straits of Messina and there aren’t any flights.”
The fuel shortage was greeted not with panic but glassy-eyed acceptance, whereupon the team retired to their rooms. All had known that the airy game of musical countries wouldn’t last forever. Coming across no curfew, Sean returned to the gardens as the few streets still lit went dark and there was again an answering burst of light in his very veins, pulse surging as the adjoining roads seemed to be, alive with sudden shouts and pursuits. Although he got to the side door–and to Hespera–unmolested, Sean nevertheless had the sense that something was coming.
“Hespera, are we safe here?”
Because she knew.
“You want to stay, Sean?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t even have dirt, just a concrete yard. Couldn’t we tend the gardens?”
“Perhaps that’s all over. Perhaps that world is dying and will not kill me.”
“You don’t want to leave, Hespera, not now?”
“I miss my sisters. They would shine my hair with a comb of Hyperborean amber, would arrange my dress flowers, would find such blood harmonies with me. I wonder what they saw before they died. I wonder if they died. Maybe they just forgot me.”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
“No matter,” she said, raising her nose to the gusty air. “They are come, your kind.”
And for the first time in Sicily he felt bone-cold.
Hepsera was off, gazelling to a stand of bamboo, the shoots of which were banging together like spears against shields. She snapped the thickest trunks, once, twice, snapping them sharp and testing the edges. Sean hadn’t strength enough to follow suit and picking up Hespera’s leavings, he joined her near the side door in a rare clearing.
“What are we doing, Hespera?”
“We must protect the garden.”
“I thought this pleased you, Sean. I thought I did.”
“They just want what we want. You were ready to leave five minutes ago.”
A volley of thuds as bodies hit the wall and limbs scrambled for purchase. The first man to labor over and drop to the base was still crouched, breathing through his mouth, when she put her spear down his throat.
But she was already catching the next man on her grounded bamboo, petals being strewn from her dress as she fought. Then Sean was faced with an opponent of his own, who eyed his fallen comrades and Sean’s weapon ahead of stepping towards him, something now gleaming in one low swinging fist. So little light. Even as Sean was struck in the side – stabbed? – he was retaliating to stun but not hurt seriously. Inept, he in fact slashed his assailant’s temple, downing him.
Men kept coming over the wall, though. Sons of a violent island. Very soon Sean was warm again, fevered even, and striking to wound. He barely paused when one opponent, brushed by the bamboo’s butt, actually retracted before receiving the sharp end of Sean’s spear.
Nevertheless Hespera and he were soon back-to-back within a ring of reckoning men. Sean wanted to see her face one final time. Hair tamed by sweat or blood, green eyes deep-gleaming, she had again that look she’d worn on the truck, blissful, as three of the pack closed with her. The first fell at her hands and while he was falling the second used the distraction to take away her gazelle legs before the third dropped on her like a hyena.
Sean only turned away as another fist stuck to his side. He sank to his knees. Even as his vision began to iris close it was blown wide open again by an awful roar, and he saw those opposing him somehow swept away like tenpins, something—
Then he was burying the stub of his bamboo into the hyena tearing at Hespera. When Sean looked up he saw a scaled tail now scything its way through Hespera’s opponents.
A tail? Yes, and he was glad he had that singularity to process because the beast to which it belonged had more heads than Sean could comprehend, as though the world was doubling and redoubling right before him.
Whether Hespera screamed that in joy or fear Sean couldn’t say, but when the beast turned on them Hespera merely stood to bow before laying her splintered bamboo at its feet. The guardian made off.
“He came home,” Hespera said. “Will my sisters? Are the golden apples to bloom again?”
Sean had no answers, felt blood-sick, like he’d been drinking the stuff, not spilling it.
“Hespera, what about the bodies?”
“It’s how the garden grows,” she said. “Follow me.”
Hespera showed him the place, but didn’t help Sean. He failed to carry the corpses of his kind and had to drag them, unwieldy, heavy with what had been done to them. There were twelve in all when it had felt like an army and only now did he notice that one of them was Sal. Where did Sean go, indeed. Sal went into that almost lightless grove of slant-trunked trees near where Sean first met Hespera. Afterwards she was as earthy as she had always been. Near dawn they were roused from the languor of unserious blood loss not by birdsong–there was none–but by a roaring, greater even than that when the beast had arrived.
“What now, Hespera?”
She was a gazelle again, however, and Sean followed her once more to the wall. The guardian was taking his wrecking-ball tail to it.
“Stop!” Hespera reared up.
And the beast did, only to turn on them afresh.
“I remind you of your ancient duty,” she said.
The guardian simply nodded, and razed on. He reduced the debris to individual bricks, then rained down on them with his rending claws, until there was nothing whatever between the couple and the world.
Was all that death for nothing?
Sean and Hespera watched through clearing dust clouds as the beast advanced upon the city. The garden advanced also, beginning again an unwalled life.
Greg Forshaw lives in York and works for the NHS. A short story he co-wrote for the UK Film Council, uncle fran, was last shown at the 2012 Aesthetica Short Film Festival. His stories have appeared in Eclectica (“‘the Handyman,” Fall 2012) and The Reader (“Swan” Spring 2013)