Floating Garden

Mary LaChapelle, 2015 Fiction Prize Winner
| Fiction

The proprietors, a man and woman, always looked uneasy when we came through the door. When I was closer, however, and they looked into my face, they smiled and looked at each other and then again at me.

One night on our sleeping mats, my mother had turned to me and said, “You have a face like the moon on the water.” I looked for this in the mirror once, but my mother said, “You cannot see how your face looks to others.”

The last time we went to the garden shop, I noticed a woman with hair the color of brown rust, waiting with the owners. Though the boss woman put her hand on my back in the way she did when we were with the white people and tugged playfully at my long hair, the customer seemed to know that I was not the boss woman’s son. Her eyes looked not just at me, but also at the space around me. I felt she was peering into my story, and my mind floated out, dangerously, toward the question of my mother’s fate.

I lowered my own eyes and gazed at the photographs spread on the counter before us. In one of them, the rust-haired woman wore trousers and a white hat. I could look at her more easily in the picture. She was not as old as my grandmother and not as young as my mother.

As I studied the photos, she turned some of the prints so I could see them better. She might have been pouring tea into my long forgotten cup; that was how her gesture felt, as if I only realized the depth of my thirst at the moment of my relief.

In the photos I could see that her house surrounded her garden entirely. On one of the large prints she had drawn with a pen the things she wanted built: a pond, a bridge across the pond, and a teahouse at the other end of the bridge. On a separate piece of paper, she had drawn a pattern for the bamboo walls of the teahouse. I drew another detail, a suggestion for trim that was customary for our houses, and I added a little porch.

She drew decorative lanterns hanging from the porch eaves, and I smiled and made the marks around them for light shining. I drew the trunk of a tree with a carved spirit shelf in it to hold the statue of the Garden Nat. She drew a bed of lotus flowers in the pond.

The owners waited with blank patience. The boss woman narrowed her eyes as if we might be making fun at her expense.

The husband motioned for the boss woman to bring her order list and follow into the back office. The woman with the rust hair gave the large photo to the wife and she came back shortly with a blurred twin picture on thin paper and gave it to me. I made the gesture of washing my hands to the wife and I went to the little toilet room, placed the paper under my shirt, and drank some water from the faucet.

From there I walked out through the nursery to the front parking lot. Besides the boss woman’s car and the owners’ van there was only one other vehicle. The back seats were folded forward to make a platform for the boxes of plants and bags of soil she had purchased. I opened the door and saw that, between the overturned seats and the floor, there was a place for me to hide, and I squeezed in.

Mary LaChapelle is author of House of Heroes and Other Stories and recipient of the Katherine Anne Porter, PEN/Nelson Algren and Whiting Foundation Awards, as well as fellowships from NYFA, Hedgebrook, Edward Albee and Bush foundations. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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