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Amber Paulen

Of Death and the Garden

Tante Jitska tells me stories of her husband, four years dead. She pieces him together, a man who once was, into an incorporeal corporeality all her own. His pictures still hang, in every room, on almost every wall throughout the big brick house. As Jitska passes from room to room, she stops and stares into Peter’s eyes, blank and staring back. She meditatively kisses her fingers and with the same deliberation holds them up to his motionless lips. “PETER,” she screams, his name instantly reverberates along the walls. She screams again, a long drawn out wail as she collapses, sobbing flesh on the cold stone floor. Her days fill fast with grief.

Gradually Jitska came to believe death is a resignation of the human form. As feathery seeds let loose from the pod, so she sees souls floating, seamless entities between earth and sky. Souls just hanging around with nothing better to do. So she believes her screams for Peter, her sobs and pleas could be heard directly by some part of the man himself. Death, it seems, can only be dealt with in ones own terms.

During Peter’s life or their life together, Jitska always leaned unwaveringly against him. He supported her with his body, his strength, his patient common sense. In turn she gave him her willingness, her body and the occasional heightened sense of the dramatic. In other words, they had accomplished a balance through the fifty odd years they were together. A balance which Jitska depended on. As Peter lie dying, Jitska too felt the life drain out of her.

Jitska’s friends and relatives often tried their part in consolation. Giving comfort, warm words, their memories of Peter in his life and sometimes shared tears. But Jitska remained stoic in her grief. She held onto it as she had held onto the living man. “No one knows,” she repeated, shaking her head rhythmically, “until they lose their husband.” Her voice heavy, every word resting in the grooves of her well-worn accent. Tante Jitska discredited all sympathy on the inability to recipricate her actual situation. She could not let go, she could not forget.

So it happened that I spent much of a spring with Tante Jitska. We were both in need of the company the other could provide. This time I spent with Jitska helped me to drown a personal diligence sometimes seconds away from mania. I am sure she felt the same of me. Jitska would talk and I would act as receptacle, gathering her thoughts on death and the general ignominy of our family. Propelling herself through a torrent of emotions in a soliloquy she had uttered many times over. She never strayed far from a few variants on one or two themes, though there was always the same fire smoldering in her eyes. During these monologues I would whisper in my mind, ‘Wow, and I thought I was intimate with all the fruits of solitude.’ We were inwardly similiar Jitska and I.

+ + +

The approach to Jitska’s house is via the driveway, a long and twisting dirt road, strewn haphazardly with bumps and impressions. On either side of this writhing path grows a forest, dense with underbrush, extending beyond itself into the mystical. The bulging canopy, now bare twigs and sticks, waits patiently, though gluttonously, for the sun above the half frozen ground. All waits in anticipation for burgeoning spring, but not so soon and not so fast. The final snow has fallen late and the earth encompasses all shades of brown to grey.

In order to traverse Jitska’s driveway my concentration must be fully peaked. I swerve to the right, zigzag sporadically to the left, through the dark and shadowy forest that towers out of forgotten fairy tales and at once, it opens. Trees give way to fields and more fields, stretching far until the reflected tree line. The sun, caught at an angle, causes the whole expanse to sparkle silver. And there, in the middle of fields and forest is Tante JitsKa’s house, a chimerical kingdom, as it was in my childhood. I sit at the edge of forest and field, breathing in the panorama with wonder, thinking, ‘All this space and Tante Jitska…’

Peter, when he was alive, had tended to the land. Tilling, planting and harvesting, his unrelenting figure sat atop the tractor through the cycle of the fields. Back and forth he went, over the meticulous rows he had created. His patient and steady hand slid responsively over the smooth, black wheel. Peter had been a constant, like the earth itself. But now all the land around the big brick house lay inert, as if it too were waiting to be let go. No longer useful, it ceases to have meaning. Though there is an exception. Abundently sprawled along the western half of the house is Jitska’s garden. Only here, out of the whole expanse of fields, the cycle of seasons has been preserved. Here the ground is still thawing, winter is still ending.

I park my car outside of Jitska’s garage near to the entry, which is through the basement. Before I go in I glance at the window above me. Tante Jitska is in the kitchen, for whenever she is the countertop light is lit, shedding a smeared glow to the outside. When I enter I find Tante Jitska sitting at the kitchen table, her elbows propped up and her head bent down as if in a silent prayer. Jitska pushes herself up, her frail but strong hands grip the arms of the chair. She flashes me a smile and gently wraps her arms around me and says, “You smell like a cigarette.”

“Would you like some tea?” Jitska asks, making her way to the stovetop. I consent and sit down next to Jitska’s now vacant spot. The warm light fills the kitchen and contends with the cool and grey from outside the windows. There arises the smell of cakes baked long ago, of conversations ended years back, a reserve of collective memories which wrap around me. Memories created before the advent of my birth, before that of my mother’s. The house is full beyond the point of saturation and drips its essence into whoever is open.

Tante Jitska places the steaming cup of brown liquid in front of me and takes her seat. Lying open and before her on the table is her journal, which has only recently become a ritual. She closes the book slowly, though only after she is sure I have caught the anguish embedded into the words that line the pages. “When Peter was still alive..,” she begins, stirring her tea with detatchment. Jitska turns her eyes towards the window and I know that her gaze is drawn to the bird feeder Peter built many years ago. I too turn to look, the birds are chirping and twittering, cheerfully unaware of even the chill outside. “I can still see Peter,” Jitska continues, her voice and accent fading in and out. “I can still see him coming… up the lane… passing the bird feeder, he would come onto the porch and take off his boots… he would come through the door, oh it all frustrates me so and I can never get any of it back, never. I can even feel the way he moved around, I expect him to sit down next to me…” There her dialogue breaks off, disembodied, to meet with Peter.

+ + +

When I venture down the twisting driveway to visit Tante Jitska, we sit patiently at the kitchen table. We are waiting for spring, for the snow to melt, for the ground to thaw, so that the life hidden below can begin its process of gradual rejuvenation. As we wait Jitska tells me memories of her childhood, of poverty, of war and immigration. She reminisces back to Peter (always back to Peter) of how they first met and how they fell in love. As Tante Jitska talks, I observe. I watch her eyes, continuously focused and unwavering on any object in her direct line of vision. I watch her motions, at once weighed and weightless. I feel an emanation, an aura, which drapes around her and creates tne sensation her speech and her actions originate at a point far, far away.

Symbiotically stretched around one side of the house is Tante Jitska’s porch. The whole edifice is a constant reminder of Peter, he built it. His sinews are embedded in the structure, his sweat dried into the cement. Gradually the days grow warmer, the ground thaws completely and the sun begins to shine brighter through intervals in the clouds. Nature beckons Tante Jitska and I to the outside, where I assist Jitska in the annual opening of the porch. Together we lift furniture, roll out the carpet and carry plants, placing them in their predestined spots. It is the same every year, how could one forget?

Once the porch has all in its place it is here Tante Jitska and I sit. With our backs to the sturdy brick of the house and our gaze reaching out across the fields as near or as far as we desire. It is after dinner that we sit, shrouded in silence. We each hold suit with the sunset and sit among imminent shadows of impending night. The forest confines us and holds us spectral as the sun sinks and shoots orange, reds and yellows dripping fecund through the distant trees. I feel as if Tante Jitska and I sit alone on the earth, as if we have been given the whole of universal beauty and wonder.

Though as suddenly as the brilliance blazed across the sky it is gone, diffused by the tight embrace of night. Saying not a word, Jitska pushes herself up and off the chair. In the split of a second I catch her face as a shadow sweeps across it. Her hands appear lost in a tangle of veins, which are elevated by the strain of supporting a body that the soul has left. Perhaps it was the darkness that helped illumine Jitska’s transperency. It was as if I had just witnessed, through her, the snuffing out of life itself.

“Good night,” Tante Jitska bids me as she tremulously bends down to kiss my cheek. My hand instinctively sweeps up to where her lips leave a circle of moisture.

“Good night,” I wish her in return as she carefully pivots herself around. Through the large house, up the steep stairs, turning on and off the lights as she goes. Tante Jitska makes her way to her bedroom.

I linger where l am, my feet up and my mind limp. I scan the horizon in hopes of catching the final vestiges of twilight, that low and lingering dark blue light, which hangs and playfully intertwines with the treeline just before the sky goes black. But, all light has completely faded and gone. Yet there are the stars, individual nodes of brightness suspended amoung the sliver of the moon. It is through this darK that Tante Jitska comes to me, though now as a child. Petite and frail, she has large brown eyes and jet black hair. She stands obstinately in front of me with her hand held out. “I want to show you a secret,” she says in a voice nearer to a whisper. I grasp her small hand, completely enshrouding it with mine. She leads me through the already dewed and damp field, lit merely by the light of the stars. We breach the forest, where. it is pitch black and I grasp her hand tightly. We walk together for some time, though here, it seems, chronological time has ceased and all is disorientation.

Jitska finally stops beside a shallow stream, a rippling pane of glass reflecting only the satiny darkness of night. She lets my hand drop to my side and suddenly, with her own hands, begins to burrow in the rich and slopping mud which lines the bank. There rises unexpectedly the sound of a deep and inverted kiss, Tante Jitska is gone. My eyes hesitantly dart around me, now seeing slightly further then an arms length away. The forest is abruptly abounding with the sounds and movements of the night and all seems permeated with the ethereal and the spirited. I have no choice but to trudge back to Tante Jitska’s home. I too make my way up the steep stairs, turning on and off the lights as I go to bed.

+ + +

Finally it is spring. In the garden there begins to grow, deliberately verdant, shoots and vernation. In the length of a week the transfiguration is near complete. What was once light ochre has become speckled green for the rain has seeped into the earth effortfully urging virile growth. This vernal opulence is almost indistinguishable from the stream snaking its way through the forest of night. They both reek of all that is fertile in the earth. It is this garden Jitska is bowed over, balancing on her hands and knees, her face hovered before the dirt as her hands work at a steady pace. She is weeding, the task for which we have been waiting.

Now, when the weather permits, Tante Jitska and I kneel humbly over the earth. One armed witn a spade and the other with a dagger, we sear and pry our way through the top layer of soil to the roots. With each blade of quack grass we pull up, the sinewy and snake-like root system inevitably follows. These rigid roots have created an intertwining web an inch under the soil, in the short span of their germination. As one subterranean strand is unearthed, several ensue. Their pale, encompassing roots employ every effort to hold tight to their life source. The more I pull at these weeds, the more I believe that they share a group consciousness and a stubborness, that they are laughing at the futility of the task Jitska and I were undertaking. Regardless, Tante Jitska and I work unwaveringly, our faces bent so low and so near to the dirt that I can taste its grittiness with each breath I inhale.

As the days, then the weeks pass, Tante Jitska and I watch as our work becomes manifest in an absence. One plot methodically cleared and we move on to the next. First, the asparagus. Its tiny green tip peers out and over tne dirt, though crowded and lost amoung the mass of weeds. Tante Jitska and I bend, with shared concentration, over this rectangular plot. There is a strong silence between us for our combined efforts are focused into one action. Jitska utters a grunt of resistance, I release a groan of disapproval as we burrow, pull and release. When we completely liberate the asparagus we move on to the raspberries. From the raspberries we move on to the large and landscaped back half of the garden, where in the late spring the flowers and ornamental bushes rain havoc with color. Littered, though purposefully, are lupines and lilies, gladiolus and lavender, bushes of every shape and color, a veritable myriad of flora.

Before Peter’s sickness and death it was in the back portion of the garden where they had spent the most time together. They had shared a vision in their mutual mind of a fantastically landscaped garden laden with the flowers, trees and bushes of their wildest wishes. It was here they came, every spring and summer, intent on actualizing what they had dreamed during the long and dormant winter. Now it was an echo of lost potential. “Peter wouldn’t have let this get so full of weeds. He would be so sorry to see it this way,” Tante Jitska says, shaking her head, which hovers above the ground.

When we finish weeding for the day, Tante Jitska and I stand up, our legs stiff, our knees grating against themselves as they straighten. We sit on the porch admiring the task we had just completed, a small patch emphasized by the great expanse. When we are hungry we go inside and Tante Jitska would cook dinner, just as she used to do for herself and Peter. “Oh,” she began as she sat before her empty plate. “Peter would never eat any of this kind of food. He ate only what he liked and never tried anything different.” Then slowly, Jitska fills her plate. After dinner I went home or maybe stayed the night. My decision depending on Tante Jitska and the extremity of her emotions. Though one could never judge how far she might waver and fall.

+ + +

‘The garden has transformed into abundance,’ I think to myself one morning while driving through the splattering rain on the way to Tante Jitska’s house. Nothing has yet been harvested, though the rhubarb is nearly ripe. I can almost taste the rhubarb crisp and strawberry rhubarb pie, but don’t forget Jitska’s sour stewed rhubarb, with the stalks boiled down to soupy strands and eaten with a spoon. I turn to enter Jitska’s driveway, swerving this way and that in avoidance of getting stuck. The pot holes have filled with water, they are suspended glass mirrors, their depth obscured. The rain pours large drops from the trees onto the windshield, the wipers frantically sweep back and forth. “No weeding today,” I say aloud to myself, with a flashing memory of yesterday and how the sun felt flooding over my back. The weather changes fast here to ensure that it is not forgotten.

The forest towers darK and ominous around me though the time is well before noon. My mind is full of images and in the length of the driveway it is reeling. I envision all events in reverse. When I park my car under the weeping chestnut tree I find I am again a child and in my parents care. My family piles out of the car and enters the house through the basement. Though, as always, I first stop to peer up and into the fogged kitchen window where Tante Jitska’s figure has become a silhouette. Down the stairs, through Peter’s workshop in the dark and damp basement, up more stairs to where the smells of the kitchen linger poignant in my youthful nose. Contained in this singular smell is yellow cake with coffee, the ancient brick house, the full course meal Jitska is in the process of preparing and of course, Tante Jitska and Peter themselves, who encircle me with their open arms.

The rain pelts down on me as I run from the car to the basement door. When I reach the threshold I shiver and hastily enter instead of catching a glimpse through the kitchen window. In the basement the darkness is twisting and I grope for the light switch I can never find. At the top of the stairs I am met with a stillness of which I have never experienced before. There is silence in every atom that surrounds me, there is neither smell nor movement in the air. My presence has changed the alkalinity by becoming an abrasive energy, by opposing the chill and the quiet. I know what has happened. My heart is thumping loud and painful, my eyes fill with tears. I have no choice but to bacK out the way I came in.

Absently I walk around the house to the garden. Limp and wet for the rain streams over me and unites with my tears, which drop the distance to the earth. I walk through the plots Jitska and I have. so diligently weeded. I stand among the most bountiful, where green layers caress me and hide me, a fortress from death. The buds of the flowers resonate and feel seconds away from bursting into colors I have not yet imagined. I kneel, dropping my knees into the enveloping mud. The water rushes around all sides of me, virile and seeping, surging into the ground beneath me. I burrow my hands into the rich and vital earth. I feel the heartbeat pound outward in vibratory waves. It is in this way I solemnly say my prayer for Tante Jitska, an incantation of thanksgiving and peace.

Amber Paulen
Oakland, California
January 2007


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