As outlined in this post Twice the Speed of Dark began as a project in which I wrote portraits to imagine what the real lives might be of the people who died in terror attacks overseas, whose stories were presumed to be uninteresting to us, or irrelevant. I wanted to engage with the complexities and tender beauties of ordinary lives that had been suddenly and brutally ended, then ignored. The aim was to look at the life of that person, not their death, so as to attempt an understanding of what had been ended. (In Twice the Speed of Dark, Anna writes the portraits, some of which can be found in the book. You can still make a pledge for Twice the Speed of Dark, and get your name in the back as a thank you for being a supporter, if you would like to.)
I decided yesterday that I would revisit the portraits I wrote during that project and write short/very short stories to expand on the few sentences I had written as an outline. This story is about the first portrait I wrote.
She sighs, stretches backward, gratified by the small, responsive click in her back. She pulls back her elbows hoping to coax another snap from her tired spine. Bending forward once more to complete the job, she digs around the roots of the ungainly plant with a trowel. Once the soil is loosened she grasps the thickened stem, coaxing gently so as to ease out the whole root system in one. A gentle, insistent tug, a come with me. Soon the plant is out of the ground, almost whole, its growth flayed out, mirrored at each end of the brown thickening of the stem. It lies on the ground. A pair of lungs on a tilted axis, one to breath air, one water.
Standing back, she looks at the flower bed, at the wall behind, painted some years ago a powder blue, turned chalky under steady sun. Where the plant had ranged against the wall is a patch of pale yellow, the colour before.
Her brother had painted the walls in the back yard for her, at a time when she had become fragile. Her youngest son a tiny soul in limbo, unsure of his way in the world as she withdrew, crushed under the confusion of post-natal depression. Her husband, always a busy man, had called in a roster of family, there to love his son until she found her way back, there to love his wife until she remembered that she loved them too. The garden, made cheerful, was part of their medicine.
Since those days she has sat out in the garden, a habit formed in bleak times but now imbued with a measure of restorative peace. She sits on a metal stool, gazing at the patch of yellow that sinks like a feeble sun into the earth, into the blue of the wall.
It marks a greater absence. A few days after painting the yard her brother had come by to take the three children out to the park, left his sister sitting quietly in the sun in the back yard. On his return they had argued, an old family wound. The argument was well worn, a scar, no longer an injury. But memories of pain had prompted their fight. She had told him to leave. Three days later he had drowned whilst fishing at dusk in a small boat that gently washed back onto the dark shore without him.
Instead of replacing the plant with a new flowering shrub, she leaves the empty space. The boundary between yellow and blue, the mark of absence revealed the presence of a brother she had loved deeply and mourned properly only years after his death. She had not noticed him in the walls, in the completion of a job well done. But in this aperture, this incomplete detail, she finds the hand of the worker, she finds her brother. She tamps down the soil.