Floating Garden

Mary LaChapelle, 2015 Fiction Prize Winner
| Fiction

That night, when I could see that the lights were out in her house, I left the car and found my way through a gap in her fence. With moonlight, I was able to see quite well in the dark. I found my way to the inner garden. I found a shovel with other tools leaning against the house. I had studied the picture closely and I could see the clearing where the pond needed to be dug.

By early morning I dug less quietly, wanting her to hear me, to be forewarned and then to come and see what I had accomplished. The pit was deep to my shoulders. When she arrived at the edge in her white robe, she made a sound in the back of her throat and then she reached in, wrapped her hand around my muddy forearm, and pulled me up.

I made the gesture to go back to digging, but she motioned me away from the hole, and pushed me down firmly on a nearby bench. She told me through gestures that she didn’t need me to shovel the pond myself. It was then that my hope diminished. I sat there without the language to tell her how deeply I longed to dig, to dig and dig in the days to come, to dig with my own strength and determination a new lake.

She brought me indoors and over to her desk. She took out a white cardboard. She drew squares and in the squares she drew a man and woman holding two babies. She pointed to one of the babies and then to herself. She drew a house with three children and then another house with four, and in each picture she showed an older girl who was herself among her sisters and brothers.

As she drew I could see around me two screens, and machines that I would come to understand were for making television stories. There were other sheets of cardboard on the table with much more elaborate pictures on them.

With quick, simple strokes, she drew her older self in different cities, like the one my ship had left behind, and then the picture of her here in the garden.

She took up a blank board and made squares on it, and gave it to me. I drew my mother and father and my grandmother and the lake and the floating gardens near us and our boat and me older in my boat. I could see she enjoyed this way of speaking without words. I drew my father with the soldiers’ guns pointed against him. I drew my mother and grandmother. As I drew the black holes of their mouths I felt as though my own sobs were opening on the paper.

When I finished drawing, she brought a map to the table. I had not expected this many shapes in the world. I pointed to a shape that resembled the one our teacher in the monastery had shown us and to another pink one, but I could see from her face that she did not believe it was my country.

She spoke into a little box and then held it up to my mouth and gestured for me to speak. I hadn’t spoken in so long. It felt unnatural, like biting into a stone. So I shook my head.

I wanted to work in the garden, but she took me in her car to an office. The office woman took out a book with many photographs of faces and on each page there were faces that were similar to each other. I looked at pictures of people that the woman had called the Asians, and I found the page with my people. I can only say that the shape of their eyes in their brow was the shape of a butterfly.

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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