On that bitter winter’s morning, Alice watched as the first shaft of sunlight warmed an icicle that weighed down the head of a pure white tulip. As the ice melted the drips gathered in a pool. It made a reservoir for later in the day, on the promise the sun would continue to shine and not hide behind the grey and heavy clouds that smeared the sky.
As moments passed, its burden trickling, the cup-shaped blossom stood taller, until crack! The icy shard fell and shattered–a victim of the pull of nature’s forces. As the warmth rescued the waxen petals from their frozen incarceration, the tulip opened just a little, and with a gentle quiver, it shook itself dry. The flower turned its face to the sun, and the twinned leaves unfurled and spread out like the arms of a tiny dancer in a child’s music box.
The message of purity and love, in flower language, from the pristine white tulip, wasn’t lost to Alice. If anything, her being here today reinforced just how duplicitous life was. The symbolism was making fun of Alice’s basic desire to be loved with an unsullied love. She sat on the edge of the rocky pile that surrounded the flower. She caught a sudden rush of tears, hot in her chilled hands, and she wiped them against the hem of her blouse.
It was not really a garden bed, just an untidy group of stones and concrete lumps left over from clearing the foundations after the old house was demolished. Like a modern archaeologist, she looked for clues of her family’s habitation.
She discerned the outline of the weatherboard house, was it really so small? She walked the space, imagining the pleasure the builder’s wife would have had pacing out the dimensions, cheerful and optimistic some one-hundred years ago. Making plans for bedrooms and a kitchen with a slow combustion stove, and a big fireplace in the lounge.
That was Alice’s room, on the corner, built-in to the back side of the veranda, with a window to the outside and another looking into the laundry. That was a place of torment and torture, more than any child should endure.
Anger and feelings of trust-betrayed began to overrule her self-control. She forced herself to open her memory and examine her time spent in this space, in this house, in this family.
A child’s voice came to her, a soft repetitive sing-song, “There’s something in the laundry, something in the laundry, something in the laundry when the lights go out.”
Her father, tall and farm-armed strong held the girl by the upper arm as he lifted her above the ground. He threw her to the floor in the corner of the room, and she coughed on the dust. Sensation battled with numbness, as a small child’s psyche tried to reconcile such ugly parenting.
The light bulb was removed and crushed under a heavy leather boot. The door was slammed and she heard the key in the lock. She felt his anger, her own pain and was fearful in the timeless dark.
Alice’s gaze shifted and she surveyed the garden as it was now. It had a single living tree, a mulberry, with branches bare and wizened. How did we all climb into that small space to pick the berries? There were stumps where the other fruit trees and bushes used to grow, and she remembered those as wearing gloriously flowered springtime frocks. One after the other they would lay their garments on the ground, like a pagan equinox offering of petticoats in various reds and pinks and whites.
One spring evening a ten year old Alice danced barefoot, twirling and swirling as petite petals were spread by the slightest movement of the air. She laughed as she skipped between the trees. The sun was setting, creating long shadows that trailed after her. Everyone else was indoors and ready for bed and she thrilled to the sensations of being alone in such a beautiful place.
Days later and the brightest green you would ever see gradually draped each tree as the new leaves replaced the lacy finery and the plump fruit began to ripen. Then came the day the children were given permission to eat the fruit, even though they had been taking surreptitious samplings for weeks before, hiding the pips and skins.
Oranges with juice so warm to the lips you were never really sure you had the segments in your mouth until you bit and the tang exploded. Pomegranates–bright jewels from ancient times. They stained small fingers when broken open and exposed the greedy child. They washed off the hot white pepper that was sprinkled on the grapes to stop them being eaten until ripe, and counted the dusky purple marbles to see who had the biggest bunch. Over-eating and being ill was a challenge, not a deterrent. Who knew what the winter would deny in their diet?
Alice’s memory peopled the space with her siblings, heard their laughter and the cross words that children spit at each other and then forget. She saw the children contesting ball games and playing chasings, always knowing the brother would win with his strength and cleverness, but playing anyway.
Her mother washed on Mondays in a great copper tub – in the winter the hung-out washing froze stiff before it dried. The cold left her fingers prune-like, blue and numb. Her father used his angry voice as he came home from work, dogs barking, doors slamming, signals to warn that everyone was on notice to behave.
The day passed and Alice wandered around the space that was her childhood home, returning to sit in the same place on the rocky garden edge. Even when she slapped her arms around her shoulders and stamped her booted feet she felt the cold. Her body was enveloped in a profound coldness she knew well. It was a barrier to feelings of love and trust. As she became older she had lost trust in relationships.
Night settled and the shadows made her nervous and she began to fear the dark. In the distance was the small hill they, as children, had called a mountain. It obscured the moon for a short while. Alice sat breathing, purposefully, one sharp breath at a time, and tried to calm her mind. She wanted to fill herself with new memories, with better memories, but she was defenceless against the onslaught of the past.
This visit today to the site of the family home was meant to give her courage, but it was wasted. Grave hurt cannot be forgotten or supplanted and neither should it be, she decided. She stood and looked up. Stars blazed in the night sky. She turned in a circle arms out-spread, and her thoughts shifted away from the grim realities on earth she had come here to face, to the heavens above.
She started to turn slowly and as she did the separate brightness of each star became a line and then a blur of silver, like a bracelet on a dancer’s arm. As she spun faster each faraway sun wove a unique pattern in the sky. She wished she could take the light deep into herself somehow, and exchange it for a release of the pain from her heart, to bestow the hurt parts of herself to each shimmering spark in the heavens. The lights caught her up, until so giddy she lay on the ground, and she let the sky settle back into its timeless pattern. One tiny, shiny piece at a time.