Rosemary

– Barbara Biles

When Andrew encountered
Rosemary it was mostly déjà vu. He could not reason why. It was the morning of
the Spring Equinox, in East Campus Parking. Piles of grimy snow leaked onto the
pavement and students wended their way around slippery ice patches and stagnant
puddles. Andrew strode, oblivious to the grime and to the notion that the sun’s
illumination was equal to southern climes. He carried, in his brown leather
case, a copy of Civilization And Its Discontents, a tattered article on Thomas
Aquinas Revisited
and an Egg McMuffin wrapped in moisture proof paper

Brown hair, soft curls. That’s what he noticed.

“Today is my day for gratitude,” she said, “so I have a gift
for you.”

“Uh, I think I need my coffee. Your name has slipped my mind.”

“Rosemary,” she said. “And I can’t tell you how much I love
your class. I’m just auditing, in case you don’t know.”

“Ah. That explains it. So what is this?” He dangled the gift,
sprigs tied together with a yellow ribbon, in the air.

“Herbs,” she said. “With meaning.”

“Uh huh?”

“Parsley, sage, rosemary and Marjoram

“Not parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?”

“Oh, and basil too. Ha ha, thyme. I get you. Well, thyme can
give you courage, that’s for sure, but not what I wanted to convey.”

“Uh huh?”

“Marjoram is a symbol of joy and happiness. It is one thing I
wish for you.”

***

Andrew considered himself lucky, even if not joyful. Lucky
because his mother Grace died when he was only four and he remained convinced
by his brother Eddie that they had been spared the tyranny of careless
mothering. As a result they had learned the value of independent thinking and
logic, suited to the dialectical
methods of Plato. They both, as professors, employed
dialogue successfully in their classes.

He had just one photo. The black and white picture revealed
nothing about Grace’s health. Light and shadow evoked a vulnerable woman with a
generous mouth and smiling eyes. Her hair fell down in soft waves. He couldn’t
remember the color. Their father gave no explanation; a muted witness so it
seemed.

Grace held Andrew in her arms and out toward the camera so you
could see his eyelids shut in baby bliss. Eddie stood right at Grace’s extended
elbow, looking straight into the camera and their sister Margie was on the
other side, leaning on her mother’s leg and looking offside. The brothers always
wondered at the wayward paths that Margie took back in Buffalo before her own demise.

It is therefore inexplicable that a man who prided himself on
academic thought, who was perhaps stoical about his early life, a man with tenure
and a wife and three kids, after four days of resistance, lifted the limp aromatic
posy from his middle desk drawer and began to google the meaning of each sprig.
He remembered to search for parsley, apparently a symbol of useful knowledge, for
sage, obviously a symbol of wisdom, and for rosemary, meaning remembrance. Oh
and basil: something about love spells.

***

The sun is three quarters up and a jet stream curves up and
over to the west, to encapsulate sky and earth together, then disappears to
nowhere. Andrew studies the narrow gravel road more intensely than he would
city pavement. There are ruts to negotiate and they are sometimes obscured by the
grassy shadows of east side ditches. Yes, there are open fields of grain, green
tinged with brown, alternating with sections of yellow canola but bushes along the
wooden and barb wire fences probably harbor mice and snakes and he’s not sure
what to expect over each rise of a hill as vehicles tend to favor the middle of
the road.

There is the dead end sign that she described. He stops on the
hilltop to solidify his view. There is the red barn with green shingles and a
cluster of smaller sheds to match but one shed defies convention. It is painted
white with turquoise door and window frames and shutters. The house is fifties
style two-tone, with brown on the lower half and cream above. There is no
movement: no cattle grazing, no animal of any kind wandering in this yard yet
it must be the right place.

He eases downhill to where large tractor tracks have dug up
the grass and soil, and where a steel gate is secured with a padlocked heavy
chain. The trees are thicker here and the farmyard is out of sight. There is a
second wooden gate inside joining a second barbed wire fence and serving entry
to a dirt road with grasses and clover in the middle of the tracks. He gets out
of his car. What the hell is he doing here anyway?

Suddenly dogs are barking and coming down the lane with them
is Rosemary on a bike. He can hear her voice but can’t tell what she is saying.
He feels a rush of excitement. There is no turning back.

“Hello!” she calls, slightly out of breath.

“How are you?”

“Country style security.” she explains as she opens
the wooden gate and proceeds to unlock the metal one.

“What are you keeping out? Wild animals?” he jokes.

“Just unwanted traffic. It’s not my arrangement. Just
following through for Jill and Otto.”

He nods. “The owners I presume.”

“Yes. Go ahead, bring your car through.”

He drives through the gates and waits for her to lock up
again.

“Meet you at the house,” she says as she leans into
the car window then pedals down the lane. The black lab bounds parallel to her
and the border collie circles ahead and back as though Rosemary is the center
of the universe. Andrew idles slowly behind. Her buttocks move rhythmically against
khaki shorts.. He is oblivious to everything else along the way.

She stands at the top of the wooden steps and motions with a
hand.

The dogs bounce around him, scrutinizing him willy nilly.

“Thelma, Louise, stop that.” she orders and the dogs
settle down.

“Very funny,” he says. “Thelma and Louise?”

“Oh, you have to know Jill and Otto,” she laughs.
“It’s their sense of humor.”

“Am I safe here?” he jokes.

“Safe as anywhere. Come on in. I’m just making us a
lunch. We can take it on our hike.”

She resumes preparations at the kitchen counter, assembling
and wrapping up egg salad sandwiches, oatmeal cookies, green apples and bottled
ice tea. “Hope you like all this.”

“Sure, fine. Anything’s fine,” he says as he eyes the
V-neck of her T-shirt downward to hidden cleavage.

She moves quickly from counter to sink and back again and
looks over at him periodically to confirm their conversation. They talk about
the fact that Jill and Otto are not really farmers; they are artists who
maintain the farmyard and lease the fields out to neighbors.

The city, more specifically the university, recedes in a flash
as does Lois, his wife. This kitchen, with its oak table and pink cupboards and
smooth black counters, possesses him. There is room for a large family and
extras at harvest time but it is now just allotting for two. He needs to make a
move but something holds him back.

Birds sing a cantata through the window, punctuated by the
sound of flies jotting on the screen. Time ticks away with the clock on the
stove and floats out the door, swirls around the sheds and sails over the open
fields and down to the creek that apparently runs at the property’s bottom edge.
Life as he knows it, his immersion in books and constant family dilemmas, the
strain of appeasing Lois, it all floats away.

      “Are you ready?” she says.

      “I am!”

      “I’ve got a couple of back packs. Here you take the lunch
in this one. I need mine for flowers.” She drops a pair of blunt end
scissors into the bottom of her pack.

      “That’s all you’re taking?” he says.

      “I’ll have plenty to bring back.”

      They head down a mowed path toward the tree line where the
creek is hidden from view. They reach an open meadow. Butterflies, radiated by
sunlight, flit from a stack of logs to grass and back again. They walk past dry
ant hills and listen to skretching grasshoppers then hear water trickling
further down. They look down a steep bank to the muddy creek and negotiate
their way through low lying scrub and young poplars where wild raspberries and
strawberries and mushrooms abound.

      “Have a raspberry.” It sits like a gemstone in her
hand.

      He drops it in his mouth. “Barely a taste. A teaser!“

      "Oh here, forget-me-nots!” She pulls out her
scissors and snips a stem. The flower is composed of sky blue petals and a
yellow eye.

      “There’s a legend about them,” she says.

      “And what is that?”

      “Well, there was this woman and her lover walking along a
river when she spied a beautiful blue flower and she asked if he would get it
for her, and of course he wanted to please her. However, he lost his footing
and fell in, crying out with his dying words – forget me not, forget me not.”

“Aren’t you the romantic.”

They move closer to the water, on boggy clay, amongst
horsetails and a crop of white daisies. They have to watch their step. A beaver
dam explains the delay of moving water. She pulls out her scissors again.
“I want the best daisies I can get. Here let me hand them to you.”

They move further down where larger rocks create a gentle
rippling in the water and flat rocks invite them to walk across to the other
side. “Shall we try it?”

He hears movement in the bushes. Some small creature. It
causes him to pause.

“Come on. Don’t be shy.” She heads across the water.

He lurches after her and slips, losing balance, his arms
flying with daisies in one hand, his legs slashing the water, his bottom resting
on the rocky bed.

“Are you alright?”

“Jesus.” he replies.

She sounds like a pan flute when she laughs.

He pulls himself out of the water holding the sopping daisies
up to dry air. “Here, come and get your flowers.” He is looking full
of mischief now. Egging her on.

She reaches for the bouquet while he takes a step away. Her
foot slips, just as his had, and she takes the plunge. They giggle like
teenagers and splash each other with uncoordinated swipes. Daisies float in all
directions.

“Hey, what about our lunch?”

“Oh yeah.” he replies. “Better save our lunch.”
And he gives her one last dose of water in her face. “Here, take my hand. I’ll
help you out.”

“No way!” She scrambles out herself. Her clothes cling
nicely.

They move to higher ground.

“So much for daisies,” he smiles and takes off his
shirt. His khaki pants cling heavily on his legs. “Well enough of
this.” He takes off his pants, his boxers still dry in places. “Feel
free to do the same.”

“No, that’s alright. The sun will dry me.”

He hangs his pants over a branch and clenches his arms in a
body builder’s pose.

“Oh you.” She zips open the back pack and pulls out
the bag of food. “It seems okay.”

They sit side by side and look back across the creek to steep
banks. It is like someone with a giant knife has sliced straight down,
revealing layers of clay and rock and coal and eroded soil.

"It must have been a deep river eons ago,” he says.

A bird interrupts, horning in on all the others with two clear
long whistles followed by three quarter notes. It repeats itself.

“You hear that?”

“What?”

“That whistling?” He whistles out the tune.

“White throated sparrow,” she says, “Dear old
Canada Canada Canada, he’s saying.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“Positive.”

He smiles to himself and listens some more. “Could be
saying dear old America America America you know.”

“Absolutely not. Too many syllables.”

“Hmph. And I suppose you want to look for daisies
again.”

“I am counting on them.”

“Or counting them. Isn’t that what you do? Count daisy
petals? He loves me, he loves me not.”

“Ha. Actually those aren’t really petals. Each white
so-called petal is an individual flower and the yellow center is made up of
tiny florets that contain both stamens and pistils. When you pick a daisy you
pick a bouquet.”

“Just the same. I’ll bet you’ve done that.”

“Well, sure, when I was young. Until I learned that, like
many things, it can be fixed.”

“How so?”

“There are usually an uneven number of white
petals.”

“I thought you said they weren’t petals.”

“Just for the sake of communication.”

“Fine.”

“As I was saying there are an uneven number so if you
start with ‘he loves me’ you end up with ‘he loves me’. Kind of takes the fun
out of it, don’t you think?”

“Well I wouldn’t be counting on that sort of thing
anyway. How about you? Any big romance in your life? Seems a woman like
you…”

“Want to know more about daisies?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“The name comes from day’s
eye
because a particular English variety closed at nightfall and opened
again at sunrise. It was also called ‘thunder flower’ because it was always
around during spring showers and was thought to be protective. People hung
daisies indoors for protection from lightning.”

“Thunder flower. I like that. Now I know why you’re
really collecting them.”

“Definitely. Protection from any storm. You might want to
take some home for yourself.”

“Oh ho. You think my home life is stormy? You think I’ll
be struck by lightning?”

“Perhaps.”

Time shifts in unknown currents. Memory, caught in a sluggish
pool, is suddenly released. Visions of Grace with tender eyes and ephemeral
embrace flash uninvited. Grace, his mother, appears like lightening. This is
simply trumped up memory, he thinks. Childish wishful thinking. He is not taken
in by it. Truth trickles like water down the creek, sometimes resting stagnant
in a pool, sometimes bubbling into eddies and ripples of light, always on the
move.

She smiles and looks somewhere far away. “A little bit like
heaven here, don’t you think.”

“Yeah,” he whispers and turns his head away. A tear
drop is forming unannounced. He quickly wipes it away.

“Something on your mind?” she says. “Anything I
can do?”

“Nah.”

She offers another forget-me-not that she has plucked from the
grasses just within her reach. “There’s another story. You might like it
better.”

“And what is that?”

“It’s an old German folk tale. A young man spots a little
blue flower in the mountains. He veers from his path to get it which then brings
him to a cave of treasures. As he stuffs his pockets full of gold and jewels, a
beautiful lady appears. Why she has to be beautiful is beyond me. However, she
warns him by saying, ‘Forget not the best.’ He, of course, leaves the little
blue flower, the forget-me-not, behind not realizing it is the best treasure of
all. As he leaves the cave, rocks from the mountain come crashing down, killing
him and closing up the cave forever.”

“Well that’s very uplifting.”

“You talked about Plato’s cave in your class. Consider it
another cave story.”

“Hah.”

“I really would like to get more of those daisies since
they are in such good form right now.”

They gather up the remains of lunch. Andrew pulls his pants
back on even though they are still damp and they head back to the creek, moving
in unison, offering a hand when it is needed, reaching and clipping and
gathering day’s eyes in abundance.

They head to the white shed, the one with the turquoise trim,
with daisies peering out of their open back packs and cradled in their arms. It
is cool and shadowy inside. The windows are shuttered but some light manages to
creep in. Along the walls flowers are hanging upside down, bundled together
with twine and hanging on protruding nails.

"Here, bring those over here.” She sets her daisies
down on an old chrome table. “I need to prepare them for drying right
away. Have to preserve the freshness.”

“Kind of contradictory, don’t you think?”

“What’s that?”

“Drying to preserve freshness?”

“Well nothing lasts forever. I’m just preserving
something at its peak.”

“Is it really the same though?”

“Of course not. But it has its own beauty. When you think
of it books preserve someone’s ideas, and even if they become outdated they can
still illuminate a certain truth. It’s all fleeting but some moments in life
just need to be preserved.”

“Getting philosophical?”

“Here you, I’ll put you to work.” She demonstrates
the trimming of stems and the binding together of small bouquets with twine for
hanging from the ceiling. “See you just clean off the lower part.” She
holds a daisy up for him to see, her eyes searching his.

He must make a move but he feels short of breath, a little
tipsy. He is nervous but he can’t figure out why. “I’m going to have to run,”
he says.

“Of course,” she replies. “I’ll open up the gates.”

***

He plays Arrowsmith’s Dream
On
as he makes his way back to the city. Steven Tyler is singing his own lyrics
and Andrew tries to sing along. “Half my life’s in
books’ written pages. Lived and learned from fools and from sages.”

At
night he dreams that he is at a restaurant with Eddie. The restaurant has
private booths laid out in labyrinthine fashion. They choose a booth that is
isolated from both customers and staff. There are copies of The Republic of Plato at each table. The brothers seem to be waiting for
someone. They have not ordered any food. A woman finally arrives and focuses
her attention on Andrew although she remains standing closer to Eddie. As they
talk the woman becomes more and more like Rosemary. She is Rosemary. Suddenly Andrew
realizes that she has arranged to meet Eddie, not him. Then Eddie says,
“Are you my mother?” Andrew realizes, with clarity, what he should
have known all along. This mother abandoned Eddie and now has agreed to meet him
again. “I’m so sorry,” says Andrew. “I didn’t realize that you
have been without a mother all this time.”

***

He woke up with the strangest feeling. The picture book, Are
You My Mother?,
is on his bedside table. He read it to his children the
night before. The little bird, who had fallen out of his nest and become
separated from his mother, went around asking the strangest characters both
animate and inanimate, “Are you my mother?”

It became an ear worm, like a pop song being recycled on the
radio. He made a game of it in an effort to control his thinking. Like the
little lost bird he chose the strangest objects and said under his breath,
“Are you my mother?” He asked the Manitoba maple at the end of his
driveway, the neighbor’s pregnant Irish Setter taken out for a short morning walk,
the girl pumping gas at Turbo on the boulevard, the poplar being pruned in
front of St. Anthony’s, the traffic light at the intersection, and the gas
light on the main drag with its never-ending flare.

He listened to certain predictable melodies of Mozart and
Haydn to drown out details of the dream but it persisted and haunted him for
several days.

Was it was all a mistake, dallying with a student, even if she
was mature and had simply audited his time? He easily had affairs in the past
but this time it remained platonic. For days in a row tears appeared at the
oddest moments which made his behavior unpredictable. He finally decided to revisit
Rousseau and Kant with his summer students, persuing the notion of
self-contradiction. Rosemary didn’t attend. At the end of the day, as he headed
to Parking, he stopped to observe skittery sparrows as they flew out from green
hedges, down to patches of water and back up again. And a white throated
sparrow, which he now could identify, whistled Rosemary Rosemary Rosemary. He
was certain of that.


Barbara Biles lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She is a graduate of the University of Alberta and a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. Her stories have appeared in several Canadian and international magazines. Her latest publications were in FreeFall, The Steel Chisel, (WPN) Words, Pauses, Noises and one is upcoming in The Nashwaak Review. This is a second appearance in Turk’s Head Review.

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