Print Story A Garden Full of Poppies
By Writer In Residence (Fri Nov 06, 2009 at 11:11:42 AM EST) (all tags)
Please suggest any changes that seem relevant.

I had been more or less in love with my aunt for the vast majority of my life, as long as I could remember. She was not much older than me, the youngest daughter of my grandparents, and a surprise to them when she appeared slightly more than a month after a particularly festive New Year’s party. They were past the usual age for having babies, but not unhappy about it. She had been my playmate as a child, only just more than half a decade older than I. I had lived for two years with my grandparents after I turned eleven, and my aunt was always around the house at that time, before she went off to university. Then we saw each other less frequently. But, that was all in the ancient past.

One spring morning a few years after the War a letter arrived asking me to come spend a few days with her, as I’d done at times before, though it had been a long time since my last visit. She had married briefly a few times and then divorced and I was generally not involved in her life very often from that point on. I had a career, a life of my own and I didn’t want to spend time pretending to like whichever rich idiot she’d married out of desperation or boredom, I’m not sure which. It was stupid and I let her know it on one occasion and then found myself quite unattached to her for many years after that.

Regardless, I accepted her invitation to come to the house she had inherited from her parents, but I didn’t know when I’d have time to get up there. It was in Vermont and a good day-long drive or so north of where I lived, so it was not easy to find the time. I am a writer and I spend most of my days comfortably tucked away in the basement typing and ignoring the rest of the world. I type away on my nice new Remington Portable, a reliable left-over from the recent war and I rarely stray from it. My books were really selling now and I suddenly found myself straddled with deadlines and offers that I wanted to fulfill. Fame is apparently a wave that must be ridden out because it eventually crashes on the shore and you are left with not much else. Much like love.

It was the middle of the summer by the time I’d finished my novel and found that I had the time again to do something other than work. I always travel for a week or two between novels to give me time to read a bit and get new ideas and see new things. Literature doesn’t write itself and you need a constant stream of ideas to get anywhere with it. I usually go somewhere warmer than where I currently live, but this time I decided to brave a humid Vermont summer. It had been years since I had seen the old house and I suppose I had some kind of romantic idea that it would inspire a great horror novel or some such story. I’d been wanting to tackle one of those for a long time and hadn’t found the right setting as yet.

The old house was a perfect example of the turn of the century homes you find in the Northeast states. It was tall, with high ceilings, spires on the tight-angled roofs that challenge the supremacy of the pines around it. The property was in the woods, but much of the trees had been cleared around the house to allow for vegetable gardens and lawns. The attempt to bring luxury and calm to the deep woods of Vermont played out in the landscaping of the house, writing civilization on the soil.

My aunt and I used to walk in the woods and get away from all that civilization. We craved disorder when we were young, and she had a certain darkness about her that I assume came from living in a fairly isolated house. Although, it should be remembered, that back then, when electricity in the house was a new thing and not everyone owned a car, a young girl mostly lived in the world of her family. People were far more protective than they are these days. I guess the war killed all that old respectability and pretence, but it wasn’t all bad.

One morning we came to the creek that ran along the back of the house, just a few steps into the woods. The water circled in a bowl in a slight hollow as it passed behind the house and when my male cousins came to visit we would all swim there together. The girls were never allowed. My aunt sat down on a fallen log, collecting her dress under her and put her thin hands into her always pensive face. She was tired, but not crying. A dead chipmunk was floating in the slow whirlpool swirl of the hollow, circling and edging towards the onward current. Eventually, it would float away downstream, but for the present it danced in front of us.

“Yuck,” she said.

“I wonder how it died.”

“Probably some dreadful hunter or some stupid boys and their guns.”

“Probably.” I was young and agreed with everything she said, most of the time.

“You know, Nick, I’m never going to die. I want to live forever. I never want to end up like that nasty old chipmunk.”

I laughed. I was sure this was one of her morbid jokes. She was always telling them.

“No, I’m going to live forever.”

This I didn’t understand and, as my mother had just died the winter before from influenza, I most certainly did not agree. But, my infatuation with my young aunt made me keep my mouth shut instead of voicing my disagreement.

“I mean, I know your mother died, Nick, but I will find a way. We are growing up in a much more advanced world and there is nothing doctors cannot do. They will find me a way.”

“How?” I asked timidly.

“I will pay them and they will see how much money I have and it will make them want to do what I say and they will find a way. When my parents die, they will leave me a lot of money and I will take care of you and make sure you also do not have to die or get sick.”

She crossed her arms and a small, vicious smile came over her lips and she never said anything like that again in my presence. But, I suspect she never stopped thinking it because later on when I would see her in passing or at other, longer periods of time when I stayed with her, she always had charms and trinkets from odd places. Her various houses always contained the latest science magazines, sometimes with pages ripped out of them, obviously taken and stored somewhere due to their importance.

And, she never had children, despite marrying more than once over the years. They say it is the most painful thing in the world for a parent to watch their child die before they do. Anyone that lives forever would be faced with exactly that problem, and my aunt had always loved children. She did not suffer death lightly.

It was for these reasons, more or less, that I eventually drifted away. I could see that something about her was not quite right and that she was very likely slightly touched, as they used to say when I was a child. She was not normal. Somehow this made her even more appealing to me and as I got much older and more brave, I felt that being around my aunt would only cause me grief, in the end. So, I threw myself into my work and wrote and wrote and wrote and lived the happy life of the bachelor. No attachments, only friends. Not even a cat. I smoked a pipe and read the papers every day and ate my dinners in restaurants, cheap ones at first and much more elaborate ones later, as my books began to sell.

When I finally decided to go to Vermont and see her, it was on a whim. It was late in the day and I had just finished my novel that morning and had lunch. Then, mulling over the offer for the seventy-fifth day in a row, I quickly wired her that I’d be there sometime tomorrow. I packed a bag for a week’s stay and then started out, figuring I could stay in New York City or somewhere big and loud with a lot of people as sort of treat to myself. My little town was one of those that hovers on the edge of something greater. It’s cheaper to live there, but if you want to go where the people are you are never too far away. It was late afternoon by the time I got onto the highway heading north.

I wondered how disappointed I’d be to see her. It had been over a decade by that point since we’d last seen one another, and even though we’d exchanged the odd letter, none of the heart was in it that had been in it when we were younger. When we had lived together. It was all information and no pulse. I regretted that, but felt it was the wiser approach. Had to be done, I suppose, for things to remain civil and responsible.

I drove all the next day after a brief stay in Manhattan, and reached the house as the sun was beginning to set. I’d only stopped once to eat and I was a little weak. I was almost surprised to see her standing by the front door, watching my approach, the yellow telegram in her hand as I came up the circled drive. She was thinner than before, but not in an unhealthy way, and her black hair hung straight at her shoulders. She was older, but still stunning and I immediately began to regret my irresponsible trip.

I waved and got out of the car. She made no move, smiling I think. Her hair blew in her face a little.

“Monica,” I said cheerily. “Good to see you!” It was an attempt, but sounded a little pitiful in my throat.

“Hello, Nick. Come in.” She spoke slowly and her voice was huskier. She had aged.

We did not embrace and though I wanted to, I decided to be professional and distant, though in a warm way. Calculated movements were important, I felt at the time. I took my suitcase from the trunk and she opened the door to the house for me. The old foyer was as grand as I remembered it, opening up to high ceilings and the landing of the stairs before me. Light from the annex in the middle of the house shone through as the sun began to crest down towards the horizon.

“The old house,” I muttered quietly, breathing in the same old smell. “It has been too long.”

She smiled at me and folded her arms again.

“This was unexpected,” she said, holding up the telegram. “I thought you’d just written me off.”

“No, no.” I stammered, embarrassed. “You know – I have my books and my deadlines and all that dull stuff. You know how it is. I just get busy and forget myself in my little world of typing things…”

“Mmmm. Well, you’re here. I had them deliver some groceries for you, but I don’t know what you like anymore. Black licorice still, I imagine? And Coca-cola, that foul elixir,” she joked, putting on her dramatic voice, the one that used to make me laugh so much when I was just her pupil.

“Oh, yes, I still do. Probably too much.”

“Well, I’ll show you to your room and have Harold put something together for you. Harold!” she called out. I had not met Harold before. “Harold’s my new man around the house. After old Ginny died I hired him. He lives over in town.”

Harold, a middle-aged man with the beginning stages of a balding head, came into the foyer.

“Yes, Miss?”

“This is Nick, my nephew. Please show him the room you set up for him, would you?”

“No problem. Let me take your bag and come with me Mr. Fellows.”

“Nick’s just fine, Harold,” I said, no longer used to servants and hired help. It felt so old-fashioned. I could never stomach hiring someone, have them around the house all the time, even with the good money I earned.

“I’ll see you at dinner, Nick,” said my aunt and I trailed behind Harold to my room. “It’s nice to have you back,” she called as we walked away.

My room assignment was always different, every time I visited the house, even though I’d only ever returned a few times since I was a child. Well, except for the one long stay I’d made in my twenties, after graduating from university, when we shared a room. This time the room I was given was my childhood room. When I was a child, my aunt had always slept in the room next to mine because it made me feel safe and secure in the days after my mother had died. I suppose this time she was trying to surprise me by not telling me I’d have my old room again. I hadn’t stayed in it since I lived here and though it was quite different now, it still felt like mine.

I set my things down and closed the door, thanking Harold. The light was fading fast and I turned on the lights as I unpacked my things. Eventually I wandered to the window and looked out at the treeline of the forest, beyond the acre of lawn below the window. The dark trees swayed slightly in the night summer breeze. The garden my grandmother had so loved was still alive, too, it seemed, though there were fewer kinds of plants in it than I could remember from my youth. Maybe it was the dying light, but I was sure there was only one type of plant in the garden that I could see, the red and orange flowers of whatever it was swaying with the breeze.

I lit a cigarette and watched the scenery as the sun dipped lower and lower. I shaved, I sat and read for a few minutes. I changed my shirt again. I wished I had a drink, but I figured it made no sense to bring my own booze. There would be plenty here. For a brief second I wished desperately that I was back home and all by myself again.

And then it was time for dinner. I put on my dinner jacket and went downstairs. My aunt was in the long dining room. It was then that I truly believed I had made a mistake in coming to the house again after all that time. My aunt was ravishing. She wore a sleek black dress and her hair fell over her shoulders. She sat at the end of the long table, behind her a fire burning brightly. The table was set with the meal and I could hear Harold puttering around in the back somewhere.

“You look beautiful,” I said full of guilt.

“Thank you, honey. I’m so glad you’ve come.” She sipped her wine and motioned me to the seat on her left where a place had been set for me. “It’s nice to have someone here to eat with me again. Harold patently refuses and he’s leaving soon anyway. His wife is sick…”

I sat down, still watching her and wondering. The line of the dress ran very low below her neck. She laughed at me a little and sat back, arching her neck as if to stretch. I almost had the impulse to make an excuse to leave, but instead I sipped the glass of wine that had been poured for me and nodded.

“That’s too bad,” I said. “I guess I’ll never know the pain of that kind of loss and I can’t say I regret it, either.”

“Me neither. I guess we’re just two aging bachelors, haunting houses and visiting each other.”

“Well, you’ve never come to see me, Aunty. Maybe you should some time.”

She frowned slightly.

“You know I don’t like that, Nick.”

“Yes, yes. Old time’s sake, my dear. Now what are we eating?” I said to gloss over her annoyance.

“Quail and carrots and rice pilaf. Elegant food is my new guilty pleasure.”

She pulled the tops off the various trays laid out on the table and displayed some steaming dishes that made my stomach quietly growl. I hadn’t properly eaten since that morning in New York.

Strangely, though, while we talked and caught up on old times and avoided difficult subjects, she barely ate. She sipped at her wine, poured another glass and picked at her food, but even though I had filled my fifth glass, I still noticed that she hadn’t really eaten anything.

“Not hungry?” I joked. My slightly drunken eyes lit up in a smile.

“No, not really. I had a rather large lunch, but I didn’t want to admit it until Harold left. He’s a fine chef when he needs to be. I’m his new guinea pig and he gets awful sore when I don’t make like I appreciate his work. His wife can’t eat any of it. What I really want is some tea.”

She rose and went into the kitchen where I heard her putting on the kettle for tea.

I didn’t care, really. I didn’t care about anything just at that moment. I was in the wonderful brown haze of an alcoholic buzz. However, conversation seemed like the natural thing and I felt like talking too much. Nonetheless, when she returned to the table changed the topic and asked about the garden.

“Ah, yes, my garden.” Now her eyes lit up in a smile. “Well. I decided to grow poppies last year and they came in like I was some sort of master gardener. I really can’t believe they’ve done so well.”

“Poppies, of all things. Do they even grow in this climate?”

“Oh, yes, poppies are a fairly resilient plant, I’ve found. Vermont weather doesn’t hurt them, but you do have to know how to take care of them.” She paused and sipped her tea, looked up at the ceiling for a second. “I really do enjoy gardening, you know? I mean, it’s utterly low class, but I enjoy it and I don’t think it hurts anyone. Anyway, we never have visitors out here, so who’s going to know?”

I nodded and then made the much needed excuse that I should go up to my room and get some sleep, though I did pour myself a sixth glass of wine first. Talk began to die out and I cordially left. She did not move from her seat, but looked at me the way she used to, back in the brief period when her parents had died and I came to live with her for a while after school. It hurt to see that affectionate look and I shuffled off embarrassed to my room, swaying and stumbling from the wine.

The night dragged and I awoke in the middle of it when the alcohol had pushed through my organs enough to have more or less left me. I opened my eyes suddenly and felt reality rush in. I grasped for the glass of water next to my bed, but it was not there. This was not my house, not my bed. My usual glass of relief was hours away to the south and I laid back down again, smacking my dry lips together and contemplating the walk to the washroom down the hall.

I could hear some sort of movement in the room next to mine, my aunt’s room. There was shuffling and shifting and there was a quiet but solid thump that echoed through the walls. As I continued thinking about the logistics needed to get up and make it to the washroom, I listened to the thumping and wondered if maybe I should go and see if she was okay. Maybe she had finished off the unopened bottle we left on the table.

After a few minutes of contemplation, my personal needs urged me out of bed and I got up. Silently opening the door, I looked into the empty hall and then walked to the washroom. When I returned I felt surprisingly awake and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I got out of bed and walked to the window where the August moon was shining down so brightly that I could see almost as well as in the day. Something was moving down in the garden.

A little dazed by the surprise of seeing something happening at this time of night, I kept watching. Whatever was moving had the shape of a person. It wasn’t a coyote or a raccoon. I probably wouldn’t have seen an animal anyway. They survive best by staying hidden. This was a person, someone tending to flowers and bending down to pick up one thing or another from the ground.

After a few minutes, the shadowy person walked towards the house and I could quite easily see that it was my aunt. Her thin, beautiful figure stood out in the moonlight. She carried something in her hands, a basket of some kind. Within a few seconds she was out of sight and I heard some sort of cluttering noise below me that made me think she was in the house again.

I thought it over a bit and then went back to bed. None of my business if she was a light sleeper. I suppose all the years of her living on her own had allowed her to form some odd habits such waking in the middle of the night to tend to her poppies. As I drifted off, I heard the familiar whistle of the tea pot in the kitchen below.

The next few days were enjoyable and I spent time with my aunt walking in the woods, talking and generally lazing about. I even got some inspiration from out of nowhere and decided to get the typewriter from the closet where it was collecting dust. I typed away an entire afternoon lost in a story.

Each night we had dinner together, though my aunt hardly ever ate more than a few bites. I commented on it one day and she repeated that she just didn’t feel hungry. She felt cold she said and then sipped the tea she had been constantly drinking from the day I’d arrived. Over the days that followed that morning she was almost always an arm’s reach from her tea cup, and old earthenware mug that I recalled my grandmother using when I was a child. As I didn’t drink tea, I never had any myself. She never offered me any, either.

We did not go into town or drive anywhere. We didn’t make any great plans or savor any dreamy ideas about the future. We simply talked and walked and became friends again after so much time. It was intoxicating and irresponsible, but eventually I stopped caring.

The evening before I was planning to leave, we sat in front of the fire, talking. I was drinking wine and she had her tea. Harold had been gone for a while and so we were left to fend for ourselves if we wanted anything to eat or drink. From time to time I would get up and open a new bottle of wine. My aunt would refill her mug from the tea pot she had set on the small table next to her chair.

We had spent the week reliving the past, selectively leaving out our romantic history and the implications of it on us as people. She said she no longer saw any of her ex-husbands and didn’t care if she ever did. They did not contact her and she never visited any of the places she used to live. It was as if that were another person from some other life. Not her own. Eventually the fire began to burn low, and though I knew I would have to wake up early in the morning, I made the irresponsible decision to get another bottle of wine.

I was already tipsy and a little drowsy from the first three bottles, most of which I had finished off myself. My aunt had had a glass or two, I think, and then gone to get her tea. I mumbled something about getting another bottle but she said nothing. I looked over at her and could see that she’d fallen asleep in the dying orange light of the coals.

Oh well, have to drink this one on my own, I thought to myself. I wandered into the kitchen, trying to keep the noise from the swinging door to a minimum. I didn’t want to wake her, seeing as she rarely slept anyway, as far as I could tell. In the kitchen I could see the small wine rack was empty. I began opening cupboards and drawers to see if maybe she kept other bottles of wine somewhere in the kitchen. I’m not sure why I thought that, since the extra bottles were in the basement wine cellar, but the previous three bottles of wine had dulled my reasoning.

I noticed the poppies in the third cupboard I opened. Their sat in a glass container, the sticky resin from inside them clouding the glass jar. I pulled the jar down, opened it, smelled it. It was a sour, vegetable smell I hadn’t experienced before. Almost medicinal.

Another jar, beside that one, contained bulbs that had been cut in two. A gray liquid leaked out. The bulbs and the heavy, sluggish liquid intermingled in the bottom of the jar. It had a simple label on it, one that looked like it had been written in the hand of my grandmother: Tea, it said on a short, yellow tag.

My aunt was drinking tea made out of poppies? She must have been completely numb. She’d been drinking it all day. Not to say that I wasn’t a little numb myself. I had the groggy, clouded head of a drinker. I put the jars back and searched around for the bottle. Now, a little confused, but not exactly determined to find out the reason for her habit, I felt like I could really use a drink. She had become a very strange woman in my absence.

I brought up two bottles from the cellar, one extra just in case. I opened the first and left the second on the kitchen counter, and wandered back to the fire place. I had a long swallow before I left the kitchen.

In front of the fire my aunt was awake again, sipping her tea and watching me as I entered. She had a certain glow about her, a sheen like porcelain and I found her even more beautiful than before. It haunted me to watch her.

“I told you,” she said quietly. “I told you, all those years ago.”

“What?” I asked groggily, slumping into my chair and filling my glass. “Told me what, dear?”

“So, you found it?” she asked.

I raised the bottle, smiling sheepishly. Curse of the writer. Long hours alone that are easily passed by filling a glass.

“No, silly. You found my tea? In the cupboard.”

“Well, I was looking for another bottle. I thought one might be in there.” I felt guilty all of the sudden, though I can’t really say why.

“I was going to tell you eventually,” she said, reaching out to touch my hand. We had made no physical contact at all the entire trip, I suddenly realized. The temptation to repeat the vast mistakes of the past were too great and I had remained determined the entire time to stay either too drunk or too sober to make any new mistakes.

Her hand was cold. Stone cold. She smiled at me and pulled my hand closer to her, letting it run along her body. It was guided over her chest, over her breasts and over her heart. Her body was as cold as the room, maybe colder. There was no heart beat. I stared into her eyes in a daze.

“Your heart…” I mumbled, confused. “You’re so cold.”

“It’s been still for a long time now,” she said, stretching out the word ‘long’ in the drunken voice of someone not themselves anymore. “I’ve missed you, nonetheless, Nick. Little Nick.”

I blinked and pulled my hand back, unsure of myself and this person who sat beside me. She stood, letting her unbuttoned gown drift from her body, standing naked before me like she had so many years before in the forest next to the hollow. She drifted towards me, slow and steady, and knelt between my legs, reaching up to kiss me. She pulled my head closer and leaned in to her mouth. I could smell the earthy scent of death as clearly as I could taste the alcohol on my breath. It raided my nostrils and made me shudder. It was the smell of cold earth and dirty forest water. It was the smell of that dead, circling chipmunk in some cloudy distant past. Somewhere in the midst of it was the acrid, medicinal taste of poppies as she ran her tongue over mine in the way she knew I liked her to.

“Monica, I can’t…” I said, half frightened, half disgusted. Half aroused.

“Oh, come on Nick.” She smiled coyly. “You’re not going to let a little something like this stop you from finally letting go and giving up your old charades? We can be whoever we want now. That old world is just some forgotten illusion. We’re too old and too rich to let them say anything, do anything…”

She spoke in a drawl, like the tea had begun to stretch out her words. She spoke the way an anesthetized person speaks just before they drift off into nowhere land.

“Monica. I, uh, I…What’s going on? Why are you so cold?”

She sat back, her lithe body as beautiful as ever, almost younger looking, in fact, than the last time I’d seen her. In the light of the dying fire she shook out her long black hair.

“Oh, it’s nothing. Let’s just say, ‘I told you so.’ “

“Told me what?”

“Nicky, Nicky. For a writer you have a very bad memory, don’t you?” She giggled like a much younger woman might.

“I suppose. I mean…maybe it’s the wine.” I reminded myself of its presence and drained my glass quickly. “Are you alright?”

“Why don’t you come over here and find out, lover.” She laid back on the thick rug before the fireplace, stretching her arms above her head and watching me. Her eyes commanded me. I got up from the chair, quickly removing my clothes and laid down beside her. Her freezing body next to my much warmer body. Her cold hands running up and down, along my chest, over my thighs. She was cold and something had changed, there was something new. Her body was quiet as we moved together in the growing dark. We held each other close and in some ways it felt like twenty years had not passed at all. Her breath quickened and I fell down limp. When we were finished she was a little warmer. I breathed deeply and stared at the shadows reaching up the arch of the ceiling above us.

My aunt looked at me in the complete dark of the room.

“What?” I asked quietly.

“You didn’t say you love me,” she said coyly.

“You know I love you,” I said. “It was hard enough to come here in the first place.”

“You don’t have to leave, you know. You can write your books here, too.”

“Maybe,” I said, not even really contemplating the thing. It would never work.

She sighed and lay closer to me. Her long hair tickled my chest.

“Unfortunately, poppies are the only way to preserve your body after death. That warm, fuzzy glow that keeps all my dying cells in stasis.” She smiled and lolled her head from side to side as if listening to a symphony, the rush of the drug running through her from head to foot. “I told you I would find a way to live forever, lover. I told you so.”
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