What will we feel when we die? Old Viola is about to find out on her last trip to her garden, unless her grandchild finds her first… in this excerpt from my 1st book of short stories.
Excerpt from Death and the Dream, Short Stories
Old Viola felt a sudden weakness in her legs and she tripped over the rough edges of the stone step behind the kitchen door of the farm house. She had her trowel and scissors in her hands. It was Saturday morning and gardening time. All morning she had been having a blinding headache and the garden blurred before her eyes as she fell.
She lived alone in the family house where she still tended the rose and herb gardens. She even still worked on her tatting, her embroidery and her piano playing. It was all getting much more difficult lately with the increased arthritic swelling of her small finger joints, with the stiffness and the pain. She tripped and as she began to fall, just then in the moment of spinning, of vertigo, of inevitable descent, she thought of her namesake, her granddaughter Olivia.
Old Viola felt a sudden pain in her heart that she understood as love.
The same Saturday morning, little Olivia bounced along with a toy in her hand for her small dog. She skipped by the wooden trellis beside the apartment she shared with Mother over in town. Olivia was laughing and her long, golden-red curls jumped around the gold bow in her hair, falling back from her face. The dog was hiding behind the small rose bush blooming crimson on the other side of the trellis, looking out and barking, then hiding again. Agitated and panting, the dog was too excited to run away. He was whining, crying. The early morning sun falling through the trellis played on Olivia’s hair like silk threads spun by the hands of the gods.
When Old Viola fell in back of the house, she held out her frail hands too late to catch her fall and hit the ground hard. She landed flat on the left side of her face and felt the pain of a fracture in her cheekbone. When her chest hit she couldn’t breathe for a moment and felt her heart skip wildly in some kind of perverse and futile race. The trowel in her right hand fell into the herb bed beside her. The early morning sun filtering through the misty dew caught her red-gray hair loosely wrapped in braids, shining and wet on the side where she landed.
Old Viola tried to reach toward the blooming rose bushes she saw blurred beside her. She could smell them and looked for them but the salty-wet, bloody smell clouded over her senses, and although she tried, she could not move her head. She despaired that she could not reach the roses. The scissors lay in her broken left hand, painfully stabbing her palm. She could not move her hand; she could not move at all. She could feel the little bones in her hand and the muscles around them, but could not command them to move. In the first few moments of the stroke, millions of her brain cells died quietly from lack of oxygen. Her head felt hot as the clouding covered her senses, and it covered her sight last of all. She thought of how the gardens would have looked from where she was lying on the ground, through the lattice of new herb buds on their old wooden stems. And she felt the pain begin again in her chest, which she understood as death.
No roses would be cut today to take to granddaughter.
“Olivia,” Mother called out impatiently from inside the apartment.
The little girl was laughing wildly, running around the trellis with her arms stretched out chasing the dog. The dog was racing low to the ground and barking furiously.
“Olivia!” Mother called louder and impatiently.
The little girl loved the garden, partly for the very reason that she couldn’t hear Mother call there.
“Time for your piano lesson,” Mother commanded, walking up briskly behind her.
Old Viola didn’t come by to see the family in town on Saturday morning as she always had. And her granddaughter was missing her by the time the afternoon hour of the lesson arrived. Olivia didn’t feel like going to her piano lesson. No particular reason, she just wasn’t feeling like it. She didn’t like the piano teacher at all, in any case—not today and not any other day. Olivia sat sullenly in the backseat of the car.
“Let’s go and visit Grandma Viola. She has a piano. She can give me a piano lesson, instead of Mrs. Fayhee,” Olivia tried reasoning.
“Olivia,” Mother said it gently and reached back to hold her daughter’s small hand.
If they went to visit, Olivia knew that Grandma Viola would give her roses again. She would sit up at the piano and they would play together. Old wrinkled fingers would shadow and guide small clumsy ones.
They would laugh.
Olivia would turn around and ask to hold the sparkly eye glasses hanging from the silk cord one more time and Grandma Viola would say no again. Olivia would take the glasses anyway and try to wear them.
The next day, Old Viola hadn’t come by the apartment for her regular Sunday morning visit. The night had been frigid. When the sun went down Old Viola felt her body shivering more than she felt the cold. She longed for sleep, for the slow release, return to the welcome darkness of the quiet mind. As the temperature fell from the heat of a summer day to the chill of a summer night, her shivering ceased and her body stopped trying to keep her warm. She felt her heart rate become slower and slower, her breaths imperceptible, twice a minute, then once a minute. And when the temperature dipped down to about 20 degrees Celsius, her heart stopped beating entirely.
The night animals wandering in the grass, mouse and raccoon, and the moths and other night insects thick in the dark, damp air of the garden found Old Viola’s body. It began to transform into the part of the garden she had loved there behind the house—a part of it all now, like the ancient wooden fence, like the perennial lavender and the old fruit trees. Her dress became wet with the night air and its pale yellow browned in the moist dirt. Her white apron stained green from the fresh herbs was pressed underneath her light body. By morning the flower scents had been warmed and released by the sun as the air dried and the heat drew life up through them, as it did every morning.
“Can we go see Grandma Viola today?” Olivia asked Mother on Sunday.
“I’m too busy,” Mother said. “I’m sorry. Maybe next weekend, dear.” She wished they could convince Old Viola to get a phone, but they couldn’t and that was just the way she was. She never had a use for conveniences and would not be changed.
The following Saturday morning, Mother drove with her daughter out to the old family place. It was time.
Mother walked in the front door but Olivia ran around the old house to the back.
Olivia found her grandmother face down in the garden. And now the body was returning to the earth, a natural thing like any other, rotting. Olivia cried. Mother heard her crying and ran to find her. The girl’s little yellow dress browned from the salt tears and the dirt. Her white lace ruffle stained green from the young herbs pressed against her bare knees where she knelt beside her grandmother’s body.
“Hypothermia,” Mother said, and lifted Olivia up in her arms. “Darling, don’t cry. I’m sure your grandmother didn’t feel a thing.”
Death and the Dream is available in print, ebook, and audio editions: