Monday, December 18, 2006


There as many wrinkles in her face as there are furrows in her garden. Once, not so long ago in fact, her front yard was smooth, cropped with a luxurious, emerald green lawn as horizontal as a spirit level. All around, fragrant bushes and flower trees, tended with the exacting science of a microsurgeon embellished the finite walls of an earthly paradise with the grace, precision and potential decadence of a Persian miniature in close parallel to the intricately embroidered tapestry that adorned her wall, proclaiming in cursive thread: «Το πεπρωμένον φυγείν αδύνατον.»
Beyond, behind the modest mustard brick home, the paradise paradigm continued. Here were all the trees of the original creation, bursting into fruit when and where the creative hand directed them; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil deemed unnecessary and relegated to behind the shed - after all, we have all supped and grown weary in our cognition - the only tree to cast its long shadow of doubt into this glowing Nuristan of light was the gnarled crap-apple of futility.
That garden is still there, though it has aged and grayed in sympathy with its tender. This bed of earth has been left unmade for too long. The crumples of its blankets have hardened and become calloused, frozen into an uneasy median point between wakefulness and sleep. There are no flowers now. Those bushes that remain are skeletons, existing only to startle the passers-by in the half-light and cause them, while looking at the hastily sinking sun, to rush home in search of reassurance in the form of an electric light and a meal of flesh. Everything is cropped and brittle, like the severe haircut of an erstwhile beauty who has faded and can no longer be bothered. The ground, parched from lack and moisture and care, has opened up and though the cracks are miniscule, they lie in wait insidiously, exactly underneath the tangled vine, lovingly imported from a long lost village whose name can now not even be remembered. Just as the nails and hair of a corpse continue to grow, as if to belie, at least for a short moment the finality of the end, so has this vine continued to thrive, knot and caress its way out of its endoskeleton, branching off aimlessly in all directions, until its nether extremities, exhausted by their exponential expansion, lie sickly and languidly before the hole that sustains them and which shall receive them.
One cannot see into the house from the street. No legible pupil exists from which to ascertain the existence of any kind of soul within. Instead, the windows are denuded of the faculty of sight; their whites, caused by the rusting nineteen sixties Venetian blinds that contain vestiges of dead moths, bumblebees and a myriad of other bruised insects whose fate it was to bang against a wall of sheer light to the end of their days, gaze back mutely and without comprehension at a life that has passed them by.
Inside, the ammoniac stench of urine is unmistakable. Where once freshly cut flowers and the aroma of freshly cut fruit tantalized the nostrils, everything has now been reduced to its lowest common denominator, the fundamental ritual of transition and passing. This then is the circular fate of all. Where eaves and cornices gleamed, cobwebs so frayed and nebulous that their provenance cannot even be remembered hang mustily, in sympathy too with the softly ever-growing darkness of her own mind.
She sits in the velvet armchair. Once, in her heyday, it could barely fit her. She was young, strong, newly arrived upon these shores and possessed of the energy and the presumption that she could create her world anew. Her forearms were equal in size to her husband's legs and it was she who placed one brick of hope, fired in the stern kiln of certainty upon the other, joined them with dystopian confidence of the disposed until the house was built.
Children ran in the hall of this house, grandchildren played in it. Yet their passing has left as much mark as the baked lamb dishes, the multitude of chops or the sticky-sweet syrupy cakes that emerged from her oven. The 1998 church calendar hangs dustily alongside the cracked terracotta plate that depicts a 1960's Parthenon - a desperate attempt to retain a memory never experienced. The date of the calendar is 6 July and the little poem at the back also reads: «το πεπρωμένον φυγείν αδύνατον.» Ironically enough, the clock still works, gnawing away, stroke after stroke at the diminishing sands in the hour-glass.
No photos adorn these walls. There was never any time to develop such memories as existed. The children had to be fed and clothed, there were grandchildren to be looked after and the garden, the envy of the entire neighbourhood to be tended. The fruit of this garden, whether delivered to one's door in a plastic bag, in the form of a pie or cake traveled from one side of Melbourne to the other and there was much praise for its formidable sender, so much an archetype that she was always referred to as «η Θεία.»
It was she who grew the vast pumpkin, so large as to rival that of Jonah's and then laughing at the attempts of her adolescent nephews to lift it, laughingly picked it up and placed it on her shoulder. This pumpkin was of course, totally useless and a gaping exception to her utilitarian demeanour. It was as if finally the creator, looking back and seeing that the creation was good, decided to sit back and apply the generative powers to no purpose at all rather than pleasure and amusement, a thing hitherto unheard of and a luxury never to be repeated. lemons were not to be cut in order to be used as cricket balls and woe betide anyone who strode into the realm of the snake beans.
Conversations were brief and to the point. There were gemista in the oven and cucumber plants that needed tending. There was no time for gossip and at night, when the garden receded into its own and would accept no interference, she would squeeze into the velvet armchair, pick up a bobbin in her coarse, thick fingers and proceed to weave a lace as complicated and convoluted though always fiercely symmetrical as the ramblings of her sister-in-law on the telephone. The drawers, covered in dust, still conceal the fruits of her labour. Immured in tissue paper, the lace moulders away in silence. When the naphthalene balls finally lost their potency, the microscopic moths and the silverfish emerged to slowly unravel the logic of the predestined strands. Now fifty or so years of work come apart in one's hands and each unintelligible gossamer-like thread floats, irrelevantly and detachedly, onto the dark carpet below.
It was around about the same time that her own mind also began to unravel. There was a fall - her knees that once were possessed with the strength of a bullock - were not what they were and then, as her strength increasingly failed her, the unraveling began. She was too weak to reach up and dust the cobwebs from the cornices and these began to accumulate until finally they grew into her mind. She began to forget faces, words even, to the extent where countenancing the beloved image of a favourite grandchild became a strange, frightening experience.
She lost her sense of smell and taste. The oven remained empty and barren, disenfranchising the aspirations of a multitude of culinary dependants and rendering them orphans. Left too long as a fruit upon the boughs of the world, she began to shrivel, the moisture and lust for life imperceptibly draining away from her skin. Yet she remained there occupying now but slight space on the same old velvet armchair, hanging precariously and alone from the same bough as she had for the previous nine decades of her life, a hardened, lifeless parody of creation, skeletal, mute and to all appearances lifeless.
Like Tithonus, the Ethiopian prince who dared to love the immortal Eos and asked for immortality, only to be granted relief from death but not decay until he shriveled and transformed into a grasshopper, she refuses to die. Instead, she remains in her corner, staring blankly at the darkness within and without, comprehending nothing. Her visitors are few. No one likes to see imperfection, devastation and no amount of irrigation, weed pulling or inspection can restore the garden of her mind to its former glory.
Immured in a tomb of life, her children sit by her, maintaining a mournful wake as she slumbers, oblivious to them and everything else. Every so often, they wash her and clip her nails. Her skin cracks and they attempt to rub her face with moisturizer. And the grass grows as long as the days do, the ground opens up and the little house is the only one in the street that never has its lights turned on or a car in the driveway. And we, the recipients of her charity, whoever she is, relegate her to the darkest corners of our disposition in our busy lives, to ignore and to forget. There shall she remain, granting us not even the ability to light a votive lamp for the illumination of our own darkened and atrophied memories.


First published in NKEE on 18 December 2006