Monday, September 14, 2009

The Embroidered Garden

One thunder morning, Mildred's father disappeared into the sandy collapse of the well he'd been digging. She heard only the rain on the roof, no shouts, not the metal thud of shovels thrown aside, but she ran outside anyway and stood with her shoes sinking into the mud, her hands crumpled by her sides.

When her father emerged in the arms of his weeping friends, the water he’d tried to capture fell from his mouth, his head tipped gently on one shoulder, more peaceful than she had ever seen him.

Mildred’s hair grew auburn down her back and into her skirts, her shoes. The layers of prim undergarments only came off after the candle had been spit out in the room she shared with three sisters. The town outside made no noise, shimmering below the judgment of the moon. No drinking, no dancing, no card-playing, no makeup. Mildred sat before the window and combed her hair in front of her face, imagining what it would feel like to be seen.

In church they sat, four robins on a pew, each sister nested into the next, gradation of color and height, the trajectory of Mildred’s red ending in Helen’s black. The boys watched them through the sweating, stiff-ribbed hour of the pastor’s sermon, Iowa becoming slowly flatter out the window, washing itself away in the dusty light.

Mildred was confined to her room for a week once, after fixing her blue eyes squarely on Jesse Baker and winking, her mouth a saucy pucker. He must have been beautiful back then, with his golden hair in waves and secret Cherokee nose, his eyes bright in the midst of the tight-stitched Depression, thinness on everyone’s lips, fear in the tired swishing of the corn.

Jesse and Mildred bounced between each other like light from a prism, the colors of their merging so brilliant that the town covered its eyes, awed and wincing. She embroidered an English cottage garden for them to live in, towering pink hollyhocks and azure morning glories climbing the thatched roof to communicate with them as they slept.

They clung to the imaginary cottage even as her hands paled on the bedspread, her lungs weakening daily, until the flowers in thread became more real than the ones she could hear murmuring outside. The flowers whispered behind the urgent dialogue between her mother and the doctors who came one by one, then left bent and sad as scarecrows.

Maybe Mildred forgave Jesse, after she died.

In the stunning apocalypse of heartbreak, he only needed small details to re-create her. Maybe she knew that by marrying her sister Helen, he was only trying to feel her hands again, the wild morning-glory sweep of her hair.

Maybe she knew he made a bargain with God at her deathbed – to stop believing in Him if she died. And so he remained an atheist until his own death, though in later years, he began speaking of the Great Spirit his own ancestors had believed in – something buoyant and ancient enough to make sense of it all.

He wrote her poetry, the pages locked in the walnut bureau in the bedroom where my mother was conceived. The poems continued singing in their small, sweet voices, even after both their lives were only a flicker of remembered light.


  1. I <3 this. I didn't realize until the mention of Helen that this isn't exactly fiction. Thank you so much for sharing it. "Secret Cherokee nose"! And the atheism -> Great Spirit. Love it.

  2. So real and raw and true. Reminded me of the Sufjan Stevens song about the wasps from Come on Feel the Illinoise...