For twenty-three years, the old man had risen in the weary dark of predawn. Sitting up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he would look to the bay window of his room, its patterned cushions hand-sewn by his late wife. It was here they’d spent their mornings; watching as golden warmth filtered into their pasture, dancing through gum leaves, wakening wild kangaroos and melting the hoarfrost.
Nowadays, he trundled straight pass the window on his walker. There was nothing much to look at through those gaping windows anymore. A developer had approached him years back about subdividing. He’d refused. “You can bugger off, mate,” he’d told the man with the lofty tenure agreement.
But then Sarah had died, and that dotted line hadn’t held so much weight to him.
Grunting down a bowl of rather dry porridge, the old man looked from his linoleum kitchen-table to the alleyway of dirt nestled between his house and the neighbour’s. He sighed, then coughed uncontrollably.
Somebody had buggered up the subdivision, resulting in the strange stretch of unallocated land. Neither he nor his neighbour had wanted to foot $14,000 just to move their fence line a few metres. And the developer wasn’t just going to give it away. So the land had been left, then ignored and now, the old man suspected, forgotten.
He watched a foil wrapper dance over the barren ground before coming to a stop in a muddy patch. A nondescript spot marked only by memories. It was there that a little Bottlebrush shrub had once sprouted, with marvellous flowers that looked like red pom-poms. He remembered it vividly, how soft it had felt.
Not for the first time had he thought of this shrub. But seldom had it risen him to standing, to grasp his walker and make for the door. Perhaps, after all the years of watching his world change so unrecognisably, he’d finally had enough. Maybe. Though he suspected it was more to do with yesterday’s diagnosis.
The wind nipped at his spotted skin as he stood where the concrete sidewalk met dirt. His breaths were heavy, calves aching. The soil was leeched, litter had blown in and begun disintegrating, and only the hardiest weeds endured. With a loud sigh that told of a weary body, he slumped to the seat of his walker.
Breath. Breath. Breath.
He stuck the heel of his tattered Oxford to the dirt, dragging it back and forth until a shallow hole formed. At only a few inches deep, a sweaty forehead hadn’t amounted to much. From the tray of his walker he produced the bowl of half-eaten porridge and scraped it into the pit. Before leaving, he pushed some of the dirt back in.
The next day the old man returned with another bowl of leftovers – a dry quiche crust and some pork rind.
The morrow would see him return again, shift more dirt from the hole and dump his morsels in. Each journey left him wheezing for air, but he endured it. By his fifteenth or sixteenth trip the soil had begun to turn black and gooey.
The old man put his heel to the dirt to begin digging when a voice drifted over his shoulder.
“Why do you always bury your food?” The girl looked barely ten.
The old man told her how his food could also feed the earth.
“Could I dig too?”
A part of him wished to shun the kid; cling to some sort of independence. But, that would achieve nothing. He watched from his walker as she retrieved a rock from under some weeds and dug as eagerly as children do – a hole deeper than any he’d made, and in half the time. When she was done, the old man asked for a favour before she scampered into some distant house behind a chain-link fence.
They met again the following day. Angry clouds had cast the day in gloom. The child, however, seemed unaffected by the mood, or the cold. She was barefoot, carrying her shoes like a purse.
“A red pom-pom,” she said, handing him a Bottlebrush flower.
As he reached, a flurry of coughs overcame the old man. He dabbed his palm on his navy blue trousers to hide the blood speckles. “Thank you.”
He plucked one of the hard shells off of the stem, striking a match retrieved from his pocket into a flame. “Fire opens em’. The pollens on the leaves.”
The girl placed the burnt seed into the hole with a few red strands from the flower, patting the earth flat over the top. “I can’t wait till it grows.”
It should fare much better now, he mused, letting slip a smile. He inhaled deeply through his nose. How many seeds would it take to bring the sweetness back into the air? Like it had been back on those days with Sarah, the days in the countryside, the days of his health.
Back inside, he peered out the kitchen window to find the girl returning with a large blue bucket of water. She drowned the seeds lovingly – and the footpath.
The old man retrieved a linen seed bag from a drawer and slid in the flower along with its hardy shells. He placed in a piece of folded parchment as well, which read: Savour a breath of fresh air for me.
By the way she was caring for this seedling, he knew the little girl would be looking at a few attempts before something took root. So, he gently placed the back-up into the draw.
Tomorrow he would stay in, the old man decided. The walks had only grown more difficult with each passing day. But, he felt happy despite this. He’d started something, and a little barefoot someone would surely pick up where he’d left off.
- Thompson Brinkworth
- Strathalbyn, South Australia
- 969 words