NATURE CAN BE BOUNTIFUL
by Mary J. Byrne
Dark green leaves from the medlar trees have stained the pool water a clouded blood. Blossoms and fruit have been walked into the ground. Neglect. Negligence.
I have dismissed the men. Only my distant cousin remains, in the long low house at the foot of the orchard, with his timorous wife and filthy child. Occasionally the child escapes up the path towards my house, the main house. Fingering the snots that dribble onto his grubby shirt up he comes, his naked legs dry and dusty, his little penis bouncing, the flowering hibiscus his guard of honour. They run and get him back. It is as if they didn't want me to see him. Perhaps they are afraid of what might happen if he arrived up here.
See how the wisteria has tortured into new shapes the railings that surround the pool, by the strength of its embrace. In winter their entwined limbs are bared to the world. The jolly blue Portuguese tiles tell stories of fish and fruit and picnics and happy days. They wend their frivolous way along the walls and down to where their stories continue beneath the water, unseen.
Yesterday I saw a hoopoe. He stayed quite a long time, gaudy among the trees, flashier than the clementines and oranges, his crest like a partygoer's hat. He absorbed all my attention for a while, until I remembered myself again and he noticed and flew away in a streak striped tan and black and white.
Usually it is pigeons. They occupy the little windows of the upper part of the henhouse near the gate, where they chat and coo and flap in and out. My cousin is unabashed by the mess they produce. They pay their rent by sacrifice: and his little family eats cheap protein from time to time, their main income gone since our house was broken up.
Pigeon is a delicacy for some. It is said that when the Queen of England came to Morocco to visit Hassan II, they served her pigeons which she refused to eat. Some say she was disgusted, others say she was returning some slight or other. I can see the poor pigeons now, their little bodies circling a mound of rice, on a table in a state room. We too have a state room, as my husband liked to call it, a place we kept locked from children's paws, in wait for fetes and special occasions. It is a long room at the top of the house, with its own guest bedrooms and two European-style bathrooms. Its walls are gay with velours and gold, it can seat hundreds, can feed hundreds from its tables of olive and thuya inlaid with mother of pearl, or from the silver and gold trays with their beaten geometry and curves. Carpets overlap and compete for space and colour, more than the room can accommodate. I preferred Tazhnaght carpets, but my husband insisted on a couple of big Rabatis, for grandeur, in the middle. I dislike their order: monotony of the middle island, the corner triangles, the border. Now I suppose they must be covered with dust and above all the sand carried on an Atlantic wind. It always got in, even when the shutters were closed tight, whorls of it under doors and even between the pages of books. The maids would have shaken them out and aired the room, but I got rid of the maids too. I wanted it all to remain untouched after its last celebration: the birth of my only son, my little one, my last.
In the orchard, the birds pick at the fruit, knock it to the ground where the worms move in. Only the hard skin of the pomegranates remains, an empty shell that will be taken over in turn by spiders and other insects. The riotous cycle of nature, undisturbed by man, is taking over again. Sometimes I can hear the rats, at night, and recently I saw a snake. My cousin says there are two of them. A male and a female. Perhaps they will beget, and on it will go again. Down there the bougainvillaea and jasmine, which were beginning to suffocate each other, have crossed the wall for light and air. I have forbidden my cousin to prune or control them. He has stopped watering them too and those near the old well are doing better than the others. I notice he looks after the virginia creeper that gives him shade in summer. Nature can be bountiful.
More of nature’s gifts I don't use are the custard apples that doze fat and mottled under broad leaves. Without the girls I have no use for them, was never fond of their fleshy softness. And the quinces are going wild and gnarled and spotty. Even if I did cook, I could never use them all, for our house and garden were made for multitudes. Ours was a place of bounty and generosity. How well I remember the girls, bright among the vegetation on a rug, surrounded by their beauty aids and whitening creams. I was afraid they would do themselves damage. Now nothing extraneous interferes. The fountain is reduced to a trickle, its pipes blocked by years of lime deposits. Armies of mosquito larvae wriggle about on the surface of its stagnant water, like miniature sea horses. There's a chameleon in the avocado tree - I saw his toffee tongue today. If I move him about he obligingly changes colour, but never drops his wary eye, walking like a Chinese wrestler from branch to branch or dangling between two in the wind, like an acrobat in a forest circus.
Some of the creatures have come to join me in the house of my solitude: mice scratch in the cupboards, a fresh praying mantis invests a ground floor room each winter, blown up by a Saharan wind. Large and out of place, she becomes more and more motionless until I can no longer tell if she is dead or alive, although I know she is already dead. She looks remarkably alive for the rest of the winter, and I never have the heart to through her out. The first years, I even tried to feed her, bringing her insects, but after a time I realised this was futile. Things must be allowed to take their course. Nature takes care of everything.
No one agreed with me when I said this. My sons were impatient, my daughters frustrated and tearful, my husband annoyed. Later I would realise that he was actually anxious to be gone and done with it all. He offered to drain the pool, knock it down, build something else. I could never allow that, could never see that water disappear down a hole. Now it teems with life in its blood redness, floats with algae and insects that dash and skid across its surface, or drone among the overhanging bushes on a summer evening. I like just to look at the old rotting deck chair in the gazebo above the pool, and watch the light change as the sun crosses the sky. It changes the character and atmosphere of the gazebo from gay to sad and even sometimes to evil and foreboding. What can it forebode now? Behind it, the basin from the well has dried up, caked and cracked with mud like a forest pond in summer. At the other end of the chain, the kitchen garden remains unwatered, unrelieved. The blackened remains of dead vegetables crackle in the wind. No aubergines, no tomatoes, no peppers. The henhouse door lies open, the henhouse empty, although I imagine a faint smell still remains. My cousin and his family ate the hens, little by little, when I refused to buy more grain. Perhaps he sold some of them to his cronies at the shop. Let them loose into the forest, I said, but he wouldn't do that. He only stays now because it's free lodgings, and my husband must give him something for keeping an eye on me. He doesn't like to work anyway, so it suits him well. He no longer even has to open stiff gates or park unwieldy cars. He just crawls in and out through the side entrance, like the rat that he is. He spends a lot of time hunkered down with others like him at the grocery store on the corner, made of beaten out tins. They gossip. If he had a driver's licence, he could even have my grey Mercedes which gathers dust in the garage. But he is too lazy to buy a licence. Only his wife works: cooking, drawing water, washing. Even the strict minimum keeps her busy. Dirt cakes their house and its occupants. Smoke has blackened the whole corner near the outdoor oven. Complicated animal burrows abound beneath and around old bits of farming equipment, spotted with birdshit and feathers. Things are more normal at my end.
His wife asked me for my son's clothes. I had to sit down, from shock and hurt. My son's tunics and vests and socks and babouches - on that boy?
They were of an age, she said. You won't need them anymore.
No, I wanted to say, my son would be older now, time did not stand still.
No, I said. Just No.
To see my son reborn in that dirty urchin, to see his white tunics with the gold and silver stitching, to see it grubby and stained and finally torn? My son. I cannot admit -
Here is the place for the mechoui. Built in stone, designed for huge strong lambs over a big fire, like that last time. Its curved walls are grown with moss now, and heavy autumnal rain has washed away the last of the ashes. Nearby a home-made broom of twigs lies where someone dropped it, and a teatowel stiffens in dusty death. Here is the pillared walk under the poolsides, where guests were eating and sheltering from the sun. It was the hottest moment of the day, but we had been late to start, and no one had yet eaten or talked enough to think of a siesta. My cousin's wife was watching the children from the deckchair in the gazebo. It had been my husband's idea, a first birthday celebration for our youngest. There were officials and friends, and they chatted and showed off. My husband liked that, was proud of himself, his work, of his family, of me. From time to time he'd catch my eye. It had been his idea to bring my distant and very idle cousin down from his mountain to our suburban home, to act as gardener and caretaker. There was the gatehouse, lying empty. I had agreed. With him, the servants and the girls, I was able to concentrate on being the lady of the house. I would have to admit that this is all I really knew how to do.
So that party day, there were people everywhere, and children of every age. My cousin's wife had her hands full, but that was her job for the day, and it was all she had to do. She and my cousin were newly married at the time. When he had ushered in the last guest and chained up the big gates, he must have called her. They may have gone back to their house, but I imagine it was more urgent than that. Perhaps among the trees or behind the pool. He came, adjusting his trousers, when the shout went up. My son in his white tunic was floating face down in the pool, and another, grubby child had been conceived. The orange trees already had substantial green buds.
Biographical note: Mary J. Byrne
Born Ireland. Worked (teaching, publishing, translation) Ireland, England, Germany, Morocco, France. Short Stories published BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service, Irish Press, Sunday Tribune, Orbis, Stand, Cyphers, European Geologist, Irish Times, Phoenix Irish Short Stories 2003 (ed David Marcus), 2 series of short stories recorded for RTE (Raidio Teilifis Éireann: Lyric FM). Short story forthcoming Dalhousie Review June 2004. Hennessy Literary Award 1986. Bourse Lawrence Durrell de la Ville d'Antibes 1995. (Also shortlisted in France for Prix Albertine Sarrazin, Transcontinental/WICE).