Garden of Motherless Children

 Reverend Dave spoons chili into plastic bowls at the homeless shelter. He counts thirty-five people today, the number getting larger as the nights get colder; this church-funded shelter the only place they have to go to in Chestertown, and only if they are drug and alcohol free—he fought against that provision when he was first assigned this parish five months ago, but several of the wealthiest members of the board overruled him. We’re not a rehab center, he argued—a waiting list at the local halfway house—we’re providing ministry, shelter.

Reverend Dave fills Marcus’ bowl. He’s just a kid, in his early twenties, his hands shaking. He’s being treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the local mental health clinic that’s slated to be shut down next month due to state budget cuts. Reverend Dave’s been calling the governor, writing editorials—how can they just shut down a mental health facility without a back-up plan? Bussing has been suggested, but it’s hard enough to get some of these people to their appointments, let alone on a bus they have to ride on for nearly two-hours round trip.

He tells Marcus to come back for more if he’s still hungry. Marcus nods, but doesn’t make eye-contact, the whites below his eyes exposed. He takes his bowl, sits off to the side, alone, spooning the food into his mouth in a perfunctory way. Eating but not tasting.
Reverend Dave waits a moment, then goes over and sits on the bench beside him, not too close. “How’s the food?” he asks in a low voice.
Marcus is crouched over, shrinking into himself. He keeps eating, doesn’t respond.
“Sticks to the ribs,” Reverend Dave says.
A slight spasm runs down Marcus’ back.
“You okay, son?”
Marcus stops eating, glances at Reverend Dave, then stares back into his bowl. “I haven’t been drinking,” he says.
“God doesn’t discriminate,” Reverend Dave says.
Seems to me he doesn’t much care,” Marcus mumbles.
Reverend Dave looks around the room, faces full of need, despair—but there’s a warmth in the sharing of the food, comfort. “Look around you,” he says.
“I seen enough,” Marcus says. “I don’t want to see no more.”

Paula takes a sip from her wooden goblet, feeling like a queen in the blue lace gown that used to belong to her mother. She wraps the matching shawl around her shoulders, walks by the native garden she planted for the town; the Rudbeckia, Eupatorium, Boneset, Joe Pye all in bloom.

She sits down on one of the cast iron benches in the garden, ignoring the empty cans of beer scattered around. It’s Friday night, let the bums have their fun. She smiles at the rhyme, looks up at the sky, the lights from the town obscuring her view, but she’s determined not to let anything break the spell, the magic of the night. She had her first gallery show tonight, and even though she didn’t sell any paintings, people came to see.

They asked her to name this garden when she planted it ten years ago. She put in so many native gardens back then, when she was younger, healthier. There’s a small plaque in the midst of the Muhlee Grass: Garden of Motherless Children. She can feel her mother’s presence when she’s sitting here, alone, and she feels her, now, watching over her, protecting her. Like when her mother taught her how to swim in the Chester River, her mother’s arms beneath her body, support beams for her small frame. She can still hear her mother telling her that it’s all about the rhythm, the breath. And, later, when she was training to be a ballerina, it was that same mantra she would hear over and over again in her head.

Reverend Dave sits in Paula’s backyard, sharing a pot of red bush tea, her rooster walking freely in and out of the small cabin, that has no doors, only flowing white curtains; the wooden floor specked with paint, her art strewn everywhere, hung on every inch of the walls, as well as on the fence outside that separates her cabin from her landlord’s estate.

Reverend Dave feels more at home here than in the modern Rancher provided by the church. He lived in a commune for a while, taught Philosophy at the University of Montana, his calling as a minister nearly twenty years ago, when he was in his thirties, more from a desire to make a difference in the world than a matter of intense faith.

Paula pulls a tuft of tall grass busting through the fence. “Invasive,” she says, her shock of dirty blonde hair busting out of a pony tail. “These assholes come here and plant all the wrong things.” She takes a deep breath, exhales, pushing the air slowly down with both hands. “But at least it’s holding the soil down along the banks of the river—fountain grass seed floats down from the nurseries. I guess everything has its place. I’m tired of fighting. My ex-husband works at one of those fucking nurseries—it ruined our marriage.”

“Well,” she says. “That and he thinks I’m crazy.” She’s wearing a short hippy-style dress, her body strong, yet feminine. She used to be a ballerina, but has trouble with her joints now due to Lyme’s Disease. “I went to a holistic healer the other day and she has me eating clay,” Paula says. “Try shitting that out,” she laughs, a glint in her amber eyes.

Reverend Dave laughs with her, finding her immensely sane, but he knows that isn’t always the case. He gave her a ride to the mental health clinic last week, where she sees a counselor for bi-polar disorder, her meds constantly being changed; and she’s only allowed supervised visits with her three kids. After her divorce, nearly five years ago, she lived at the shelter on and off again for several years, now she volunteers there.

On the weekends she works at Divine Catering, but she’s no longer allowed to be a server. Her boss blamed it on her teeth, but it’s more than my teeth, Paula told him, I know too much about these people, who they’re sleeping with, how much they drink. They look at me and see themselves. Anyway, she said, I’d rather be in the kitchen—I’ve had enough of being on stage.

Paula’s wealthy neighbors up the street, in their brick historic homes, aren’t pleased with her outdoor art; flames and swirls of color on large canvasses that both mask and reveal disembodied faces—faces of horror, anguish. The kind of paintings that make you want to look away, and, yet, if you close enough, there are dragonflies, birds. . . small symbols of hope.

She sits back down in the arm chair across from him, around the fire pit, the back yard bordered by dense woods. “Marcus has been coming around,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “He sat here for nearly two hours yesterday, just staring into the woods.”

“He’s trying to process,” Reverend Dave says.
“The pictures will always be there,” Paula says. “They never go away.”

Reverend Dave nods. She told him about finding her mother when she was nine-years-old, hanging from an elm tree in her best dress—the black silk one with the red hibiscus blooms.

Reverend Dave stares at the blank computer screen, runs a hand through his waves of grey hair. He types, I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord. Revelation, 1. 7 Sometimes it feels as if he’s been writing the same sermon over and over, like when he was a kid, practicing the same piano piece for his recital. fur Elise. It got so his fingers knew the notes on their own, that he no longer had anything to do with it. But then he played the piece perfectly and there was applause and it was over. This sermon seems never-ending. What drew him to Methodism is its doctrine that love of God is linked with love of neighbors. But it’s getting harder and harder to write this sermon, to deliver a message of hope and peace with so much hatred spewed in the media, at political rallies, behind closed doors. What he wants to convey is that history is repeating itself, that we are fighting the same wars, spreading the same hatred, creating the same suffering. What he wants to convey is that there is a divine plan at work in this cycle of eternal return, that it doesn’t mean the “death of God” as Nietzche proclaimed—it is not a means to an end; this never-ending cycle is not a substitution for God. It is God itself in the beauty of repetition. Repetition is the mother of mastery.

Paula understands. Marcus sits in her backyard with his eyes closed, listens to the birds, the bugs, the gentle rhythm of the wind chimes. Before he went to Iraq he had a girl in a blue cotton dress, the collar lightly scratching his hand when he held her breast. She used to email him every night, but then she said she couldn’t wait. She hooked up with one of his friends.

Paula comes out, sits down beside him, offers him a hit off her joint. He inhales, exhales slowly. “They discharged me last year—said I was mentally unstable.”

“Good for you—they’re the fucked up ones. I go to the clinic once a week, do stupid human tricks, pat my head and rub my belly, stupid shit like that. Last week they asked me to count backwards from a hundred by seven. I laughed at the counselor, told her to do it.”

She takes another hit. “If I don’t take their drugs, though, I don’t get to see my kids. I have to pee in a fucking Dixie cup to prove I’m taking the shit.”
“They put me on Prozac, but I couldn’t sleep,” Marcus says.
“I just gotta stay away from the Vodka,” Paula says.
Marcus nods. When he first got back all he did was drink, trying to forget.
Paula tells him about her native gardens. They’re like children to her, she says. She’s watched them grow over the years, change, take shape. “It’s all about letting nature take its course,” she says. “There’s a plan to it all—a beautiful plan—and we keep fucking it up, thinking we got better ideas. Fucking ego is all that it is.”
“The Iraqi people don’t even want us over there,” he says. One of his friends was killed by a hand grenade while spray-painting over a sign: Slow Death for U.S.A.
“We can’t even clean up our own mess.” She says, puts the joint out, walks inside. “You wanna beer?” she calls out.
“Sure,” he says. She let him use her shower, said he could crash here tonight if he wanted—she’s old enough to be his mother, but maybe that’s what he needs. Reverend Dave has been nice to him, but he had enough of people brainwashing over there, people telling him what to think, what to believe.
“So where you from?” Paula asks, handing him a beer.
“Jersey,” he says, popping the cap. “My parents were hoping I’d make a career of it over there. I got four little brothers and a little sister.”
“You’re lucky you got out of there alive.”
“Maybe,” he says.

Reverend Dave relaxes on the chaise lounge in Paula’s cabin while she cooks up Sunday dinner. He agreed to supervise the visit with her kids today. Thomas on his computer, a quiet boy, who seems, to Reverend Dave, a bit like Marcus; at the tender age of twelve he acts as if he’s already seen enough, as if he could easily retreat back into his mother’s womb. Tess, on the other hand, is full of life, earthy like her mother, constantly in motion, but there’s a sadness about her as well, a wisdom in her nine-year-old face when she watches her mother.

Paula swore she could cook and it smells heavenly, roasted duck in a glazed orange sauce, boiled potatoes with rosemary, collard greens smothered in fried garlic and butter. It reminds him of his parish in North Carolina. He didn’t last long there. In fact, he hasn’t lasted at any parish for longer than three years. It’s better not to form too close of an attachment with your parishioners, they say—although they’d like nothing more than for him to find a nice girl to settle down with, be an example of marital bliss. And keep the politics out of his sermons.

Tess is on the old spinet piano, now, sharply out of tune, but the minuet she plays with her light touch so lovely. Paula twirls out of the kitchen, stops at the chaise lounge, curtsies, holds out her hand to him. He hasn’t danced in over twenty years, and he’s certainly never danced a minute, but he stands up, bows, puts his right hand on her left hand, as if he’s been dancing this dance his whole life.

“One, two, three. . . One two three,” Paula says, taking small steps and he follows, tapping his foot three times now. He feels light on his feet, light inside.
“It’s all about the rhythm, Reverend,” Paula says, moving with such grace, her chin lifted, eyes guiding him. “The breath.”
Marcus walks down the stairs, his dark hair tousled, clothes rumpled. He stops at the landing when he sees them, the intimacy seeming to paralyze him.
They stop dancing, move apart.
“Thought you were going to sleep through dinner,” Paula says.
“Sorry,” he says, glancing over at Thomas, then Tess.
Tess has stopped playing and is staring at Marcus, her brown eyes wide, sizing him up. A twinge of jealousy runs through Reverend Dave. Marcus hasn’t been at the shelter the past few days, but he hadn’t suspected this.
Paula introduces Marcus to her kids.
He mumbles hello, his head down.
“Well, I’m hungry as a horse,” Reverend Dave says.
Paula gathers them around the table, and Reverend Dave gives the blessing; they pass the food around while Tess tells them about the grey pony she rides at the stables, a pony that only walks when it wants to and never bothers to run.
“Smart pony,” Paula says. “No one’s got him by the balls.”

Maggie, the director of the church board, sips the last of her tea at Reverend Dave’s kitchen table. She’s just finished going over the current budget with him. Barely any funds allotted for the shelter—most going for repairs on the steeple, and overseas, care packages for the soldiers. “You should also be advised that they want Paula out of that horrible cabin,” she says, looking over her red-rimmed glasses at him.
“Who’s they?” he asks, getting up and wiping off the spotless counter.
“Her neighbors.”
“All of them?”
“Well, the ones with influence.” Maggie says. “There’s a petition going around.”
He throws down the rag, turns around. “Saying what?”
Maggie waves her hand. “I don’t know, that she’s a menace to the community.”
“A menace to the community?”
“You don’t know her history, Reverend.”
“I know she’s been helping Marcus. Haven’t you noticed lately—he’s been making eye contact.”
She shakes her head.
“Of course you haven’t noticed,” he says, no longer hiding his anger. “You don’t look at those people. You and your silly committee of women would rather look away, just serve up the meals with your eyes closed.”
Maggie straightens her posture. “You know this has nothing to do with Marcus.”
He gets up, heads for the door.
“Reverend, people are talking—”
“You people never change,” he says, slamming the door.

Paula takes a can of Red, White and Blue beer out of her fridge, takes a long swig. She was walking home from her catering job when she saw her neighbors with their spades and shovels hacking away at The Garden of Motherless Children, raping and pillaging. She went into full warrior mode, fighting them off, chasing them back to their private fortresses. But she was too late. Most of her babies were unsalvageable. Fucking fountain grass that will soon take over the whole earth planted in their place. Neat little rows of Hosta that will soon curl up, wither and die—some plants, like people, aren’t meant to be in full sun.

Two police cars are parked in front of the Garden of Motherless Children. The policemen outside talking to several neighbors. Reverend Dave nods to them on his way to Paula’s cabin; he wanted to warn her about the petition, but he has a sinking feeling that he’s too late. He finds her out back, sitting in a chair, drinking a beer, painting her toe nails.
“Did you see?’ she asks, without a greeting.
He shakes his head.
“The garden,” she says. “They killed it.”
“What happened?” he asks, sits down in the chair across from her.
She continues to paint her toes, a lime green color.
“They called it scraggly,” she says. “Unkempt. It’s a fucking native garden, this is the time it’s re-seeding—you’re supposed to let nature take its course now, leave it the fuck alone. They came in with their picks and shovels, murdered it, planted all the wrong things. Pulled out the native asters and put in fucking mums that’ll never make it through the winter.”
“The cops are here—talking to the neighbors,” Reverend Dave says,
“I did what any good mother would do,” she say, her eyes flashing. “I fought them off.”
“Maybe I can talk to the cops.”
“It’s no use—they want me out of here. They’ll charge me with assault and battery. Trespassing.” She smiles. “I chased one bitch to her front door with a shovel.”
He stands up, grabs her arm, adrenaline rushing through him. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Where?”
“Through the woods.”
“I have a two-person kayak, by the river, at a friend’s house,” Paula says.
They take off for the woods, plow through the invasive honeysuckle vine.
“It smells heavenly in the spring,” Paula says. “You got to give it that.”

Paula can barely walk, let alone run, her knees giving out, but her friend’s house isn’t far, and, luckily, her friend isn’t home. Dave muscles the heavy kayak into the water and off they go down the Chester river, like two fugitives, laughing at their daring escape.
“Where to?” Paula asks. She’s in the back, steering. Dave in the front, providing most of the momentum. He hasn’t used his muscles like this in a while, and it feels good, invigorating, an unusually warm day for late October.
“Your call,” Dave says.
“Let’s go to Muddy Pit,” Paula says. “I need to wash off the bad voodoo.”

Muddy pit is in a protected alcove. The cliffs above bearing pines, cedars, oaks, clusters of invasive Mimosa. A small man-made beach is on the shore, with stone steps leading up the side of the cliff to a secluded mansion.
“The owners trucked in the white sand,” Paula says. She slips off her Compost Happens tee-shirt, no bra. “But don’t worry—I know the people. They sail to the Caribbean in the fall.”
“Good to know,” Reverend Dave says.
Paula takes off her jeans, underwear. In the harsh, afternoon light she is not at all self-conscious; her body sagging in places, joints swollen, but her upper body is still strong, breasts small and firm. He feels an erection coming on, over a year since he’s been with a woman—sometimes he has to remind himself that he is still a man, that he has the same needs, desires of every other man.
“Come on in, Reverend,” she says, walking into the pit, her arms raised in the air, getting used to the water gradually. It doesn’t take him long to follow, his body not in the best shape either, a pot belly from all the church dinners, but he’s never been one to believe in perfect forms—imperfection the mark of humanity.
The water is freezing, but the air so warm, the mud deep, to his knees. For a moment he thinks he’s going to be sucked in, but then Paula laughs, her belly laugh, splashes him with water, and they start to swim.
“It’s all about the rhythm, Reverend,” she says. “The breath.”
Reverend Dave takes broad strokes, breathing with the universe, understanding that it’s within each breath, each pause, that we need to listen closely, tune ourselves to the rhythm.

Dave and Paula lie on the beach covered in mud from head to toe, baking in the sun. The water lapping at the sand, soothing, the tide coming in.
Sometimes, more than sometimes, Paula thinks about her mother’s way out, a final easing of the pain. But she would do it differently, like Virginia Woolf. She’d walk quietly down to the river with a pocket full of stones, sink into the river’s bed.
“Is Marcus still staying at your place?” Dave asks.
“He needs someone to hold him at night,” she says. “He gets the shakes, has nightmares. It’s like I’m holding him down, keeping him from jumping out of his own skin. That’s all he wants you know? To be free from it. That’s all my mother wanted.”
Dave reaches for her hand. “We’re free from it now,” he says.

Marcus walks over the railroad tracks to Paula’s cabin. She says the neighbors are trying to get her evicted, and he sees them staring at him, pretending to do yard work behind their brick walls. He tells her to ignore them, but he knows how impossible it is when people are watching your every move, waiting for you to slip up.
He walks inside, calls out for Paula, looks for her upstairs. He buys her a carton of cigarettes, a six-pack when he can, finding some work last week sanding floors. He knows it’s nothing that’ll last forever, but he’s not thinking about forever. His friend had a wife, two little kids. In a split second it was gone.
He goes downstairs, looks out back. Tess is sitting in one of the arm chairs, her body swallowed up in the green plaid of the cushions; she’s crying, the pain of it all in the dark of her eyes—just like the little girl over there. Her older brother was one of the boys in the base dump that night. Lock and load at ‘em. His hand was shaking. Private, Lock and load at ‘em now! The boy held boxes of unopened cookies, pop-tarts. . .
“My mother tried to kill them,” Tess says, sobbing. “They’ll lock her up again.”
“Who?”
“The neighbors—they tore up her garden.”
“What garden?”
She stares at him in disbelief. “The Garden of Motherless Children—didn’t you see?”
Marcus shakes his head.
It was so dark over there.
“Did you run away?” he asks.
Tess starts to cry again. “I have to be here—I have to help her.”
He takes her by the hand. “They’ll come looking for us,” he says. “We have to hide.”
“I know a place,” Tess says. She leads him through the woods to a large stand of bamboo. “My brother and me made a house,” she says. “My mom calls it the invasive haven.”
It’s a tee-pee made of bamboo with white sheets tacked around. They both crawl inside, jugs of water holding down a plastic tarp. A flashlight, a can of unopened Pringles, a warm blanket that Tess unfolds, wraps around them.
Marcus starts shaking, the memory coming back too hard, too loud. He is there again, on the ground, crosshairs over the boys’ forehead.
Tess opens the can.
He covers his head with his arms.
“Have a chip,” she says.
He tries to take one, but can’t hold on.
It’s okay, Tess says, patting his back, but it’s not okay, he knows it will never be okay, even if he was just following orders. The laser wire not enough to keep the children out. Shoot the scavengers, lock and load at ‘em.

Paula knows where to look for Tess, her ex-husband scouring the riverside, the cops searching the streets. She asked Dave to stay at the house, and then took off for the woods with a flashlight. She knows Tess will be waiting for her there, in their secret hideaway: the invasive haven. And she is. The blanket wrapped around her, her face smeared with tears.
She pulls her daughter close, holding her tight against her own pounding heart. “It’s okay,” she says over and over, calming herself more than Tess, who hasn’t yet said a word.
Paula lets go, brushes the hair back from Tess’ forehead.
“He told me to wait here,” Tess says softly.
“Who?”
“Marcus.”
“Did he hurt you?” Paula asks, panic washing over her again.
Tess shakes her head. “He killed a boy,” she says. “They made him do it.”

Dave and Paula found Marcus’ body washed up in a bed of Phragmites along the river the next morning, not far down from the Chester River bridge. They went out searching for him after notifying the police and coast guard that he was missing—the response being that drifters come and go in this town. It is nothing to be alarmed about. They tried to notify family members, but could find no relations. Marcus Rodriguez. The closest they came were men of the same name. Women who had born children of the same name. Paula invited them all to the service that she and Reverend Dave had in the Garden of Motherless Children, where they scattered his ashes, but it was just the two of them, and Tess, and a few bums that saluted him with their beers.

About Lisa Lynn Biggar

I received my MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and am currently working on a short story cycle set on the eastern shore of Maryland. My short fiction has appeared in Dickinson Review, Main Street Rag, Bluestem Magazine, Roadside Fiction, Little Patuxent Review, The Minnesota Review, Kentucky Review, and is forthcoming in Newfound. I teach English at Chesapeake College and am the new fiction editor for Little Patuxent Review. In my spare time, I co-own and operate a cut flower farm on the eastern shore of Maryland with my husband and four cats.

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