My Wilderness in the City
Recently, while cleaning out the clutter in my basement, I found this short story among manuscripts and old letters crammed in a cardboard box. I read it, and was touched by the youthful and unadulterated naiveté of the piece. It had been published in a literary journal in Bucharest when I was in my early my twenties, and later, in the US, in my wife’s translation, in a literary magazine sponsored by the University of Connecticut where I was pursuing a Master’s Degree.
I loved the place where we lived and the garden. The fresh air and the quietude, disrupted only by the song of the birds, made me feel serene, and at peace with life. Coming home, I would leave behind the hassle and bustle of the city, the heat, and the problems at work. All remained beyond the gate, and I entered the house smiling and satisfied.
I remember bragging once to a friend. “A village house,” he scoffed. We were in the crowded center of town, and through the noise of traffic I pretended not to hear his scorn when he spoke of the gardens and the mended fences, the squeaking gates, the fountains, and the lilac shrubs of the suburbs. Then I walked him to the entrance of his massive, hot, ten story concrete box. I felt content and unruffled, the more so as I longed for the cool air of my garden, as well as for all the other things that made it special to me.
Wedge-shaped and not too spacious, the garden surprised by its wild disorder, its wealth of colors and fragrances. Overrun by crabgrass and weeds, a driveway cut through it, just wide enough for a car. At the far end, close to the drinking fountain, a jasmine shrub and a baby fir angled after the sun. To the left stood an old, abandoned kennel, shaded by a sumac tree with a pungent scent and a short, ash brown trunk. Viewed from the upper floor terrace, this corner looked like a miniature forest clearing with a shed in the center. Narrow paths led to hidden spots. It had been a long time since I had walked those paths and in my mind I saw the bustle of the small beings behind the bushes: the ants and the snails coming out after the rain, the little mice with their gray fur, the greedy spiders, the beetles, the roaches, the fat sparrows and the pigeons, all gathered there, each within its rank, without false superiority. The buzzing flies, the bees kissing the pollen and, from time to time, the butterflies making love against the green background of the garden, gathered to form an idyllic wonderland.
On the right side of the garden, near the fence to the street, was the most beautiful corner. Several old lilac shrubs grew intertwined, the tops untrimmed and full of dry branches, with strips of bark hanging down like tangled strings. Close by, in the shadow of the shrubs, a handful of roses were blossoming. In time, the royal flowers had climbed up into the branches of the lilacs. Through the heavy, purple clusters, fiery like hearts, pure and red, the roses opened, petal-by-petal, announcing their surprising triumph.
I was eagerly awaiting spring, when, like water reaching the boiling point, the vibrant shades and scents, the sounds and the mysteries of the garden would be revealed again, bursting with life. Summer would follow, and the cool breeze would wrap around us like a veil in the evening. Autumn would catch us unaware, with its soft, endlessly merging hues, then everything would sadden, and the alley would become muddy and covered in dry weeds. Winter would come with thoughts of rest, in bridal white or dark and cold. And on all those days, while going to work or coming home, while feasting, laughing or relaxing, I would spare a moment to glance at the garden from behind a window, from the terrace, the stairs, the gate. And each time I looked I would feel delighted: my garden, my beautiful, wild garden!
At times, over breakfast with my family, I would mention the burgeoning of new plants, or forecast the weather by the murmur of the leaves and the impetuous flight of the swallows. “The fir has grown,” mother would say. “Time passes,” father would reply philosophically.
I would wrap my sandwiches and get ready to leave for work. Walking through the garden I would realize that the seasons had changed indeed, that I had become an adult — like the fir tree near the fountain. I would think of my life and this garden, my refuge, unscathed by others and untouched by us, a place where we could be mindful and introspective.
Our neighbors occupied the second story of the house. They were nice people and, although we were not friends, we often spent summer evenings together, talking until late on the bench in the back of the house. We shared the same love for peace and quiet and they appreciated the garden as much as we did. Neither they nor we would have dared disturb or interfere with its many free and friendly wild creatures that formed a sprawling and bustling ecosystem.
Then one autumn our neighbors moved out, and another very respectable family moved in. On one of the last sunny afternoons we sat together on the bench and talked. “This place looks neglected,” they said, pointing to the garden. “But,” dared I contradict, “it is untamed and beautiful, like a piece of the wild.” They looked at me quizzically and I felt a pang of anxiety, but I didn’t realize what it meant to have a fastidious caretaker around.
The next day as I returned from work, I noticed from far down the street that something had changed. The lilac shrubs that had been leaning over the fence that morning seemed crippled, like old men resting on crutches. I came closer and saw trimmed branches and leaves, dark green and large like my palms, laying in the dust on the sidewalk. The alley was retraced, straight like a city street. On both sides, heaps of weeds and yellow dandelions were wilting, with their roots pulled up. At the fountain, naked to his waist, our neighbor was noisily washing his armpits. Next to him, a shovel and a pickax were crushing the jasmine shrub. As soon as he saw me, he came over. Water and sweat were running down his chest. “Well, what do you say?” he asked, his voice full of satisfaction. He had a narrow forehead and small eyes, and he was breathing noisily through his open mouth. Members of his family rested on the bench. His wife was plump, her patterned apron stained here and there, her hair tousled; their two sons were eating sunflower seeds and spitting the husks on a newspaper spread neatly over the ground.
What was I to say? What could I say?
Now that the weeds had been plucked and the flowers uprooted, the alley traced straight and edged, the anthills trampled, the hollows filled, the spider webs destroyed and the butterflies exiled, now that the caterpillars had been exterminated and the roses coerced to stay within their own kin forsaking their brothers, now that the lilac shrubs had been fashionably trimmed and the trunks whitewashed, the air fumigated, the honey sweetened with sugar and the birds taught to sing — now blossom my garden!
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