The Martindale property was 25 acres of farmland with a pretty three-story residence on a grassy knoll overlooking hills, hedgerows, and a sun-streaked trout stream.
When Betty Martindale was alive, she had created three flower gardens. One around the house and two on either side of the entrance to the 800 foot driveway that led from the road to their front door.
For a while after she died, Claude tried to run his hardware store in town, mow 10 of the 25 acres that they had set aside for a lawn, and maintain all three gardens. But that soon got to be too much, so he hired a high school kid to mow the lawn, and he took care of the gardens himself.
This story is about two flowers – three if you include an annoying bleeding heart – that occupied the north of those roadside gardens. The first of these was a blue bearded iris named Bill, who had abided there for the longest period of time. Next was the bleeding heart, with a multiplicity of drooping stems from each of which suspended 20 teeny-tiny red flowers, lined up side by side and resembling the backsides of suckling pigs.
Last to arrive in the garden was a rose, whose delicate petals graduated from bright white at the center to raspberry at the tips of the petals near the edge. The rose’s name was Fascination.
The most interesting thing about Fascination was that she was not a real rose. She, along with a large shipment of silk peonies, daffodils, and tulips, had been delivered to Pier 1 Imports five years before, and then purchased by a gentleman named Percy Malkovitch. Last April, Percy’s alcoholic nephew Regis stole Fascination from a vase on top of a grand piano in Uncle Percy’s living room.
When Regis awoke the next morning, he noticed the rose lying beside him on the front seat of his car. Fearing that he would encounter his uncle’s wrath if he tried to return it, he sped up Route 41 as if fleeing an angry ghost. When he saw a garden adjacent to a driveway half a mile past Echo Lake, Regis leapt from the car, plunged the stem of the rose into loose soil beside a bearded iris, and then guiltily (at least he looked guilty) drove away.
Fascination, as I’m sure you are aware, was that rose.
Finding herself thus abruptly stolen, transported, and abandoned, she stuttered “What? Where? How?” ... disheartened, terrified, and completely perplexed. Bill (the bearded iris), equally stunned, but pleased to find himself confronting an adorable intruder, dipped a welcoming leaf in her direction and said, his voice husky, “Call me Bill.”
That was the beginning.
It turned out that both Bill and Fascination were conversation-starved, and other than the electric shock of recognition that all soon-to-be sweethearts feel when their eyes first meet, their love affair actually started with words.
Soon, Bill was telling Fascination what it was like to be a bulb buried in the soil, sensing the impending warmth of spring. How it felt to break through the ground and reach up toward the sun. He described watching the earth sprout with other living things: columbine, daffodils, lily of the valley, primrose, and violets. He even told her about the miserable tangle of bleeding heart stems who lived right behind him in the garden, and how she spoke ill of everything and everyone with a bitterness that bordered on vengeance.
Fascination related her history, too. She spoke of being arranged with other silk flowers in a large metal tub, of having been purchased by a man who never talked to her, but who played the piano beautifully, of her boredom when living in a room that always smelled of furniture polish. Of being plucked out of her vase, transported in a cold car, and dumped in a clump of earth where, fortuitously, she found herself in a lovely garden, no longer bored. No longer alone. And in love.
Spring is a short season, and the lifetime of a silk flower exposed to rain, wind, sun, and fog is necessarily of short duration. The blooming days for an iris, too – even one who is hearty, bearded, and masculine – is limited. But during their brief span together, Fascination and Bill laughed, loved, chatted ceaselessly, and as the hours flew by, leaned closer and closer until their stems spiraled around each other like strands of DNA. Fascination rested her cheek against Bill’s ruffled face, Bill buried his beard in her soft, scentless petals, and they spent their every waking minute entwined.
The only cloud on the horizon of their love was the bleeding heart behind Bill, who continually hissed into their ears, “You are cellulose. She is silk. She’s not real. She is a fake flower. The Bible says if you marry outside your tribe, you will be ... Have you no pride in...? How dare you adopt the values of ... conform to ... assimilate with...” and on and on and on.
Happiness, like a bullet-proof vest, is impenetrable to most things, so as a rule, the lovers were able to ignore the bleeding heart. Once, however, when the volume of her bleating shut out even the noise of traffic, Bill snapped around his head and yelled, “Shut up!”
His uncharacteristic response made Fascination laugh. Her laughter made Bill laugh. And surprisingly, it was their amusement, and not Bill’s anger or indignation that finally caused the bleeding heart to fall silent.
So they lived, and so they loved throughout the balmy weeks of spring, until three days of drenching rain turned their home into a swamp. The first morning after the skies cleared, Claude Martindale brought his tools and wheelbarrow to his gardens beside the road to clean out the after-rain debris. However, when he came upon the fabric wrapped wire stem of a soggy silk rose entwined with the slack stem of a bearded iris, he stared down at their disintegrating remains, and without really knowing why, his eyes began to fill with tears.
He gently lifted them out of the mud, but instead of tossing them into the hedgerow, as he usually did with dead plants, he buried them in a pile of leaves behind his house. When he returned his attention to the garden minutes later, he noticed that a healthy cluster of bleeding hearts had moved into the space where the iris and the silk rose had just been.
Claude Martindale was certain that he had not planted the bleeding heart. Nor had Betty, as neither of them liked the plant. “I hate its name,” Betty had said with a shiver when a neighbor tried to give her a cutting. “And I don’t like all of those drooping, dripping, tiny red flowers,” Claude agreed.
So how had it gotten into Betty’s garden?
Perhaps in honor of his late wife ... or perhaps compelled by mysterious reasons known only to flowers or people who had once been in love, Claude edged around the bleeding heart with his shovel and dug out every last vestige of root. He walked with the healthy plant’s remains to the burn barrel in his backyard and unceremoniously dumped them in.
Then, feeling somehow happier, more optimistic, and younger than he had for years, Claude Martindale raised his shovel so that its blade rested against his shoulder, and once again, he marched down the driveway. This time, though, his step was light, and there was a song in his heart.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2024. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com