The Garden

I am not usually a short story writer, but this popped out of the keyboard on Monday while thinking about my dream job: running my own Bed and Breakfast.

I hope you all will come visit me there. Bring your manuscripts … and gardening gloves.

Thanks to Rarasaur for the idea to offer fresh chai – now you’ll have to send me your mother’s recipe!

Branna stood gazing out of the kitchen window and wondered if any of the birds fighting for a perch at the feeder felt the chill in their bones too. Mornings like this one came with a price; but the delight it brought her to feel the brisk, arctic wind drifting in through the cracked glass, only to disperse the steam rising from the cup of chai she used to warm her hands was worth a little pain. She knew the ache in her joints would pass. It always did.

The one in her chest was more persistent. “Just your imagination,” the doctor had told her. Humph, what did he know? Doctors. You give a man a stethoscope and he thinks he is the almighty Himself! She knew better. “They don’t call it ‘practicing medicine’ for nothing, you know,” she muttered under her breath. Taking another sip of chai, she pushed the doctor out of her mind.

The guests in the house would be stirring soon. Branna prided herself on always being the first one up and the last to bed, a habit born of necessity over twenty years of child-rearing. From down the hall she heard the familiar squeak of the middle bedroom door and promised herself for the third time that month to look for the WD40 she had put on a back shelf of the shed last spring.

“Good morning.” The greeting, spoken in a low voice from behind her and to her left made her jump. How had she not heard footsteps on the spotless hardwood planks of her kitchen? Looking down, she saw the reason immediately: one large toe peeked through the end of a thick woolen sock on the stranger’s right foot.

“Morning,” she replied, turning around to get a better look at the speaker’s face. With so many guests in and out, eventually their features ran together into a blur of indistinct humanity, but the keen eyes looking at her from behind silver-rimmed spectacles caught her attention. The quality of the man’s gaze arrested her thoughts, momentarily unsettling her. For the first time in a long while, someone was really looking at her.

“I’m Jack Wallace,” the man said, holding out his hand.

“Yes, I know, Mr. Wallace,” she replied, turning back to the window in decline of the offered handshake. “There is fresh chai in the jug on the counter, or, if you prefer, you can start the coffeemaker next to it. I’ll have breakfast ready in less than twenty minutes.” Turning to look over her shoulder, she raised her chin to the back door, and said, “Some of my guests enjoy an early morning walk – through that door and to the right.” Looking in the other direction she added, “Breakfast will be served in the dining room, just there,” she nodded toward the room, “at seven o’clock sharp.” She then turned her back to him with a finality that let him know the instructions were complete, and further conversation would be unwelcome.

“I see,” the man said, with a smile in his voice. “In that case, I suppose I had better locate my shoes. Care to join me? The garden out back looks fairly extensive and I wouldn’t mind a tour.”

A tour of the garden? she thought. At this time of year? Ridiculous. But when she turned around to say as much, the room was empty.

She sighed. The precious quiet time she enjoyed every morning had been broken, so she busied herself finishing up the last minute preparations, all the while thinking curiously of the man with the soft, deep voice.

Just as she picked up a large plate of biscuits, a young Asian couple entered the kitchen. Branna smiled and went through the instructions again, this time pointing out the hot water on the stove and an iron pot equipped to brew loose tea leaves she had set up on the bar the night before. The black-haired woman, dressed in a light sweater and flip flops thanked Branna in a thick accent, then proceeded to prepare the tea.

“I hope you’ll be wearing warmer shoes than those if you plan on going out today,” Branna commented, looking pointedly at the woman’s nearly bare feet. The man smiled and made an indistinct sound. Then he nodded to Branna in what looked to be a nervous, half-hearted bow, before moving to assist his wife. They spoke in low tones in a language unfamiliar to her, but Branna did not mind. As the years had passed, she found she preferred the peace of her own thoughts to the chatter of her more talkative guests.

At precisely seven a.m. Branna rang a little bell announcing breakfast. A sign listing food and drink options occupied the center of a large lazy Susan placed in the middle of an even larger farmhouse table, overflowing with various types of food. The aroma of sausage and biscuits mingled with fresh-cut fruit, permeated the house.

Framed photographs of every size and shape crowded the top of a sideboard sitting against one wall of the dining room. Branna’s presence in several of them suggested a close family, despite the fact that she ran the Inn alone. Eight padded chairs provided ample seating for her guests, and four more sat against the side wall, just in case. In the years she had run the Inn, she rarely boarded enough customers to necessitate the presence of so many, but when her family came to visit, the twelve chairs always proved insufficient.

Although Branna had eaten an hour earlier, she took her usual place at the table, available to answer any questions her guests might have about the area. Two chatty college girls bounced enthusiastically into the seats opposite Branna, just as the man named Jack appeared in the doorway. He wore heavy hiking boots and carried a parka over one arm, but did not move to take a seat. The Asian couple shuffled to the table with the iron pot between them. “What about that tour?” asked Jack, smiling disarmingly at Branna. “I’ll bet you’ve eaten already, but it’s a little too early yet for me. I’ll just try a mug of that chai and meet you at the back door when you’re ready.” With that, he strode into the kitchen, leaving Branna to stare after him, slack-jawed in surprise at his assumptions.

The guests at the table looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to say something. She smiled, cleared her throat, and began, “Good morning, and welcome to historic Triangle. There are several trolley tours to pick from that all begin in the square, three blocks east – that way,” she indicated, pointing. “Today at two p.m. the Theater House will be showing a matinee of the movie, ‘Casablanca’ with Humphrey Bogart. There are maps of local hiking trails on the table by the front door, or, if you prefer horseback riding, there are stables two blocks past the square on Clay Street. I will not be offering lunch today, but if you are interested in eating dinner here at the Inn, please be sure to look over the menu options and let me know your preferences, allergies, or special dietary concerns before you leave this morning. Dinner is always served at six o’clock sharp, no exceptions.” She looked pointedly at each guest, as if she could see the errant teenager hiding behind their innocent eyes. “No questions? Last chance…” The guests shook their heads and turned their attention to the feast before them. Her morning speech complete, Branna rose amid quiet conversation and clinking silverware, and stepped back into the kitchen.

Jack Wallace had donned the parka and was standing by the back door, sipping at a mug of steaming chai. He gazed outside as if he already knew every turn of the path that wound its way through the now-dormant plants behind the old farmhouse. The weather would turn warm enough for new growth to appear in about six more weeks, if Branna got her yearly wish for an early spring. She could not remember the last time anyone had asked to see the grounds, nor was she entirely sure why she had suggested a morning walk to the man in the first place. Only a handful of people had wandered the convoluted pathways behind her home since the day she moved into the bed and breakfast five years ago. Suddenly she realized she did not want anyone – especially this stranger – to share it with her.

“Mr. Wallace,” she began, “I am sorry to have misled you, but the garden is off limits to guests at this time of year. I don’t know what I was thinking earlier. You caught me off my guard, and – well, there are plenty of lovely, public gardens scattered about our little town. I’m sure you won’t have any problem locating one worth your while.”

Jack turned from the window in the back door to look at her. Once again she was struck by the intensity of his gaze – it seemed to pierce straight into her soul. “Don’t worry,” he said, gently, “I won’t scare her away.”

Branna’s eyes grew wide. “What did you say?” she managed to ask in a strained whisper.

“The hawk nesting in the tree at the end of the path. I won’t scare her, I promise,” he replied, turning back to the window as if Branna’s reaction to his words had been perfectly normal, even expected.

She followed his gaze outside in time to see the hawk rise from its nest and soar over the trees and out of sight. The bird’s flight seemed effortless, as if she simply waited for the right gust of wind and then spread her wings in surrender to its current. Yes, days like these had always been her favorite.

At the sight of the hawk in flight, Branna relaxed visibly. Despite her best effort, she could no longer think of a credible reason to deny Jack a walk out back. She sighed, lifted her coat from its peg beside the door, and turned to him with a resigned smile. “Let’s go,” she said.

Jack smiled back at her, “I promise, everything will be alright.”

As they passed through the doorway together, Branna felt warmth like August sunshine drift through her body. Flowing like clean water, it washed away the knot of pain that had been lodged in her chest for longer than she could remember. She looked up, and there was the hawk. It floated overhead on the frigid January wind like a prayer or a blessing. “Yes,” she said, “everything is going to be alright.”