Yesterday was my day off and I had to do an errand in another district. I had never been to that part of the city and had to look it up, go on the subway and find my way there. I completed my errand at the small shop, and then, having time, began to wander. It’s early spring, and the plum blossoms are out, all white. I walked up a back lane, then up another between a row of houses, then along another which became steeper as I walked. The sun was low, and the sky was pale and wan. The winter has been long, this year.
I came upon a large house then, and a garden, and in the garden under a tree, a woman. A wide hat shielded her face. The garden was green and lush, with rocks and smaller rocks, and small hills and inclines, and many shaded places. There were areas with swept white stones, then small hills, moss-covered, then low creeping pines. And taller trees, a different green, moss green, pale green, then dull greens, then greens more bright. Small maples with leaves, tiny leaves, in the light, turning.
The woman was not young. She turned to me as I stood there, and nodded her head in greeting. I nodded and smiled, and stood, compelled to look at her garden, to look at all the shadows and shades and greennesses. The woman had a garden scissors in hand and wore a smock over her pale dress. Instead of turning away, then, she looked at me curiously. She would have noticed right away I was from away, far away, and I felt my tallness, as I always do, here. She beckoned towards me, then gestured to the small iron gate a little further along. I walked over and pushed the gate, it was heavy and black iron, so solid in the pale sunshine.
I walked in and she said, in her language, come, come, my garden. I want to show you my garden. I understand some of her language, sometimes enough, but sometimes not enough. Where do you come from, she said. I told her. It sounded far away when I said it, the word echoed in the air between us, like a place or name that exists only in my mind. She smiled and nodded vigorously, ah yes, she said. Are you a student? No, no, I said, I’m an English teacher. She bowed, and said again, ah yes, and nodded and smiled.
And then she walked ahead of me, talking all the while, and gesturing to the tiny-leafed tree that glinted palely with its leaves alongside. She showed me every plant, and stones, and rocks, as I walked behind her and nodded and smiled. I felt to be under a pale light, where everything was glowing greenly and palely, like a blessing.
Then she turned and said something, but this time I wasn’t sure what she said. Perhaps it was a question but I cannot say. And then she led me towards her house, half-hidden by low leaves and bended pines. The house’s roof was black and iron, like the gate, and curving in the old style of this country.
We went in: it was dark, a dimness inside. Then she said, obaasan, a word I do know. Grandmother. And she said it again, obaasan, and she led me along a passageway. There was a door, the old kind of door that slides open, and then a room where, when my eyes accustomed to the dimness, I saw only a chair, and a television, an old television set of the kind I remember from my childhood. The television was on, it was a talking program, I didn’t really notice what kind of talking because I saw then obaasan. She was a very old woman, sitting in the chair. And then my gardener host said, obaasan, again, as though this explained everything.
We stood in silence for a moment in the dimness, just the television and a man’s voice on it, talking, talking. And then the gardener woman said, in English this time: hundred. They were the first words of English she had spoken, and I answered in her language then: a hundred years old? Yes yes, she said in her language, a hundred years old. I laughed, and she laughed, and then we were both laughing, and then obaasan looked at us and smiled widely too, a smile that creased and lit up her small face. Obaasan nodded and nodded, and looked me up and down and said something to the gardener-lady, but I couldn’t hear or understand what she said. And then they both laughed together, like birds, but so lightly.
There were other things: the gardener-lady served me soup with pork and cabbage in it, in a deep black bowl, with steam that wreathed. And we walked some more outside and saw more green, and leaves, and bowing trees. And then I said, I must go now, goodbye, and thank you, and I left by the heavy iron gate. I went on my way, to the subway, into the busyness of our city, to my apartment in the other district.
Up four flights of stairs, my key in the door, and home.
I told my mother this story last night because we Skype every Sunday evening. I told her even more details: about the iron-roofed house, with alcoves and small objects and figurines which glinted golden in its dim rooms. Then I sent my mother some photos I had taken on my phone: of the garden, of the deeply curving black roof, of the pale sky, of the plum blossoms.
My mother must have liked the photos I sent. Perhaps she spent the long night tossing in her bed in Toronto and following the gardening-lady through the pathways, in her mind. Perhaps she deeply loved the garden I had described. Perhaps she wanted to taste the soup, with the bits of pork and cabbage in it, steaming. Perhaps she deeply wished to see the glinting gold objects in the dim alcoves of the house, or that pale spring sky. Perhaps she imagined the white plum blossoms, and the pink cherry ones which were coming.
My mother wrote this story because my mother is a writer.
Perhaps my mother felt it necessary to record what I told her, so that she’d remember it. Perhaps she felt it necessary to record what I told her, so that I’d remember it.
Or perhaps my mother was thinking of an old woman she knew, who was once far away in another country, an obaasan also, who carried within her everything that mattered about what went before, and everything that must be carried forward into what comes after, but I cannot say.
Dawn Promislow is the author of Jewels and Other Stories (Mawenzi House, 2010), which was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award 2011 and named one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail. She was the 2015-2016 writer-in-residence at the Toronto Heliconian Club. She lives in Toronto where she is completing a novel.