Empty Gardens

Marie Lemieux was always warning her daughters about their behaviour. "You'll come to a bad end like your father if you're not careful," was one of her favourite sayings.

"Stay out of trouble," she cautioned every time Constance and her sister Margaret Rose went out-of-doors, as though they were in immanent danger of succumbing to some ever-present menace.

Marie was terrified of scandal. She lived her life trying to prevent it's overtaking her. A woman whose husband had run off could spend a lifetime diverting attention from that fact, like a large boulder dividing the flow of a stream in two.

Marie was aware of how the women at the beauty salon talked, gossiping back and forth as she did their hair. They could be saying the most awful things about someone they all knew, but if she walked through the door their tone changed instantly. To your face they smiled. Behind your back, who knew what was said?

The summer Constance turned eleven, the nights were hot and humid. It was the last summer Marie allowed her daughters to sleep in the hammock on the side porch. One morning after breakfast, Constance sat on the steps as two friends from school came along the lane past the row of houses, of which hers was the last.

"Salut, Constance!"

"Salut! Where are you going?"

"To Paquette's store to buy eggs for my mother," the smaller boy, Marc, replied.

"What are you doing later?" the other boy, Denis, asked while bending down to tie a lace on his dirty sneakers.

"Nothing."

Denis stood, brushing the dirt from his knees.

"Come swimming with us. We're going up to Priest Lake," Marc yelled as they suddenly bolted and ran off down the lane.

Priest Lake was owned by the Jesuits. That afternoon, Constance told her mother she was going up to the falls with Marc and Denis. Her mother was getting ready to go to the salon.

"I don't want you going up to bother the brothers at their retreat," she said.

Constance said nothing.

"Did you hear me?" her mother asked.

"Yes."

"And don't let those boys try to touch you, either. You tell them I'll cut off their hands if they try anything."

Despite her mother's warnings Constance went swimming with the boys. She knew they wouldn't try to touch her. Constance didn't do such things with boys, unlike her sister, Margaret Rose, who was going to have to repeat grade seven in the fall. As Marie put it, she went `boy-crazy' and failed to concentrate on her studies.

It was hot at the lake that afternoon. Afterwards they all flopped down on the rocks to dry. In the distance they could hear the falls where Priest Lake drained into a smaller lake below.

Marc brought out fried bologna sandwiches his mother had made. From where they sat they could see the Jesuit lodge jutting out at one end of the island. Constance stared at it for a while.

"What are you looking at?" Marc asked.

"The priest lodge."

"It looks deserted, if you ask me."

"I heard someone screaming over there one night," Denis blurted out, chewing a mouthful of sandwich.

"Get lost," Constance said.

"I swear on the cross -- you can ask my brother Paul," Denis said. "He said the brothers torture you if they don't like you."

"They don't torture people -- they're priests," Marc said.

"Jesuits are mean. My brother Paul went to Jesuit school in Ste Hyacinthe and he says they're the cruellest in the world. He says they beat you with whips in the basement of the school."

Marc shrugged. "Well, I'd like to see them try. I'd call the cops."

"That wouldn't stop them," Denis replied. "They'd only lie. The cops would believe them and put you in jail."

The sun grew hotter and the water stilled. The trees around them breathed and sighed. Denis stood and threw his crusts into the water. Ripples edged the bloating white shapes forward in the current toward the falls.

"When's your old man gettin' back?" Marc asked.

Denis flexed the muscles on his skinny torso to view their reflection in the water.

"As soon as the logging's done, I guess," he answered with a shrug.

Constance was quiet. Her father had been gone two years. For the year before that her mother and father had fought all the time. She didn't think they had gotten divorced, though. Catholics who divorced went to purgatory. She didn't think her father and mother would want to be in peril of that.

At one time her father kept dozens of bee hives in the backyard, selling the honey at county fairs. She remembered watching him stroke the tiger-furred burrs as they crawled up his bare arms. Both her mother and Margaret Rose had been terrified by this.

The last time she saw him the back yard had been filled with lilacs. The bees buzzed from cluster to cluster. At the end of May the purple flowers shrivelled to dry grape vine husks, leaving only the heart-shaped leaves to fill the space.

The night he left he called Constance and her sister into the living room. He knelt before them as they sat on the worn brown couch with crocheted doilies covering its arms and back. Margaret Rose scuffed the floor with her shoe while he talked.

"I've lost something and I have to go away to find it," he told them.

Constance wondered what he could possibly have lost that would take him away from them. "Maybe God will help you find it," she said.

"Maybe," her father said. He looked sad, yet relieved at the same time.

He tousled the girls' hair and went back upstairs. The next morning he was gone.

Marie cried for a long time after that. Constance marvelled at her show of suffering. She thought she should hate her father for causing her mother such sorrow, but she didn't. She was secretly glad to see her mother unhappy. She felt more like her father than either her mother or sister.

"Your father's afraid of the truth," her mother said. "He has no faith." She turned her gaze on Constance. "You've got his eyes. I hope you don't turn out like him."

Constance and Margaret Rose never heard from him. Every now and then Marie would get money in the mail. Once, just after Christmas when work at the salon was slow, she received a cheque.

"It's Providence!" Constance heard her mother exclaim, though later she heard her crying again.

Her mother's world-weariness weighed Constance down, but she was in awe of her devotion. Constance watched as she lit candles for the matins and crouched on her hands and knees and prayed three times every day.

But whatever her mother felt as she prayed, Constance didn't feel it. Once in church Constance saw a lighted candle drop from its silver holder onto the floor. The wax crawled across the wood as smoke curled upwards in black tufts.

She envisioned the old wooden church completely wrapped in orange flames and shivered. She imagined herself telling Marc and Denis later that she could've stopped it, but didn't. Before anything could happen an old curate picked up the fallen candle and stamped out the flame. She wondered if God had been testing her.

"Don't you think it'll be fun to be in grade six, Constance?" she heard Marc say. "We'll be the seniors then."

Tree branches hung low over the lake. Summer was waning. She hadn't thought of it till now.

"I don't know. I s'pose it'll be just the same, only higher," she said.

"It'll be better 'cause we'll be the biggest," Denis declared. "And we can boss the little kids around." He laughed.

Constance looked across at the Jesuit lodge. The building was momentarily revealed to her, then quickly covered up again by branches sweeping across it. Later, walking home along the shore they came upon a green dory tied to a birch tree overhanging the water.

"I thought nobody was s'posed to be on this lake 'cause of the Jesuits," Denis said.

"Maybe it's stolen," Marc said.

"Let's take a ride," Denis said. He untied it and pushed it out. No one moved as he stepped in. He looked at the other two.

"Well? Are you coming or are you too chicken?"

He took hold of the oars. Constance was thinking of what her mother would say if she found out.

"We won't go far -- just over to the falls and back, okay?"

Constance stepped in. Marc followed. "Not far, remember," she cautioned.

Denis began to row. Sitting in the front, Constance kept watch for underwater logs. Lily pads stems disappeared into the murky depths below the starry white offerings of petals sitting placidly atop the surface. Now and then she looked up at the lodge to see if they were being observed. The boat creaked slowly forward in the water.

"She's a real beauty," Denis exclaimed as he pulled on the oars, straining his skinny muscles.

Denis stopped rowing and lit a cigarette, taking tentative puffs. They drifted slowly towards the falls but Denis made no move to turn the boat around. Constance looked at Marc and saw the fear in his face at the sound of the approaching cataracts.

Neither of them said a word. If they spoke, Denis might torment them further by waiting even longer to take action. At the last minute Denis easily turned the boat aside before the tugging current pulled them onto the jagged rocks and water spilling into the lake below.

When she got home her mother asked where she had been.

"We went on a picnic," Constance said. "Marc's mother made us bologna sandwiches."

"You didn't go up to Priest Lake and bother the brothers, I hope," her mother said.

"We didn't bother anybody," she said truthfully.

It rained for almost a week after that. It was cool enough to sleep indoors at night. In the afternoons Constance played with Margaret Rose. Though she was two years younger, Constance felt too old to be playing with dolls.

She was content to sit and let Margaret Rose tell her what to do, her pale oval face contrasting with the exuberant robustness of her sister's as she dressed the dolls and served them tea.

Whenever her mother came into the room Constance put the dolls aside as though she hadn't been playing with them. She thought her mother seemed almost happy again.

When the sun shone again she went to call on Marc and Denis. The three of them headed up the road towards Priest Lake. At the falls they stopped to dangle their arms and heads over the railing of the bridge and stare into the moving water.

Denis picked up a rock and threw it. It arced in the air, plummeted, and was enveloped in the spumy spray. Constance stared at the white folds of water cascading beneath her.

When she looked up, her sister stood at the far end of the bridge.

"Where are you going?" Margaret Rose asked, catching up to them.

"To Priest Lake," Denis answered before Constance could say anything. Some of Constance's friends didn't like Margaret Rose because she was bossy. But Denis liked her. He spread it around school she was a good necker, and more.

Constance watched to see if her sister would say anything about their mother's warnings. "I'm coming, too," was all she said, without waiting to see if Constance objected.

Constance knew she couldn't say no or their mother would hear about it. They continued on to Priest Lake together where they swam off the rocks until they were bored.

"Let's take a ride in our dory," Denis said.

Constance looked at Margaret Rose to see her reaction. Her sister merely stood and waited for them to lead the way.

They found the dory resting on the shallow bottom, filled with rainwater but still tied to the birch tree where they had left it the week before. They began to scoop in unison with their hands cupped until it slowly floated off the sandy shore.

It took all four of them to haul it out of the water and turn it on its side to let it drain. Afterwards, they pulled it back into the water and clambered aboard. The boys took the oars and began to row out onto the lake.

"Where'll we go?" asked Marc.

"The lodge," Constance whispered.

They all looked at her.

"What if the Jesuits catch us?" Marc asked.

"We'll just say we were rowing by," answered Margaret Rose with a shiver of anticipation. For once, Constance thought, she and her sister were in collusion.

On the way over, they were silent in their shared conspiracy. From quite a ways off it became apparent the lodge was boarded up. Their bravado returned and they began to talk again.

"If anyone asks we'll say we were sinking and had to stop at their dock or else drown," said Margaret Rose. They all laughed.

Margaret Rose threw strands of limp wet hair over her shoulders. She peeled off the straps of her bathing suit. The thin white lines beneath it were flanked by two straight rows of pinkish flesh. Her developing breasts held the top in place.

The week before, Constance and her sister had stood naked before the mirror in their mother's bedroom. Constance looked at Margaret Rose's figure, hips curving curiously outward, breasts like budding mounds. Beside her, Constance's body looked like a stick figure.

When she saw the hair sprouting between her sister's legs she felt sick. She covered herself and ran out of the room while Margaret Rose laughed.

"I think I just saw someone all in white walk past one of the windows," Marc said suddenly.

"Maybe it was a ghost," Margaret Rose said excitedly.

"My brother Paul says the Jesuits torture people and bury them in the woods," Denis informed them.

No one said anything. The possibility of such things seemed to hang in the air as the boat slid onto the sandy beach. They all stepped out, splashing in the water with their bare feet. Denis tied the rope to the dock.

The four of them stood looking up at the closed buildings. The air was still and dense with clouds. High above the lodge, the trees swayed slowly. The place seemed to be waiting for them.

"I don't think there's anyone here," said Constance, slipping her sandals onto her bare feet.

"Let's go up," said Margaret Rose, giving the command.

The lawn running up the slope was wild and overgrown. They came to a one-room shack with lace curtains covering the windows. It was boarded shut. Above the doorsill a sign -- Villa de moi-seul -- had been hand-lettered on plain board.

They peered through a single window, crowding round and cupping the glass with their hands. The darkened interior was empty except for a simple chair, a desk and a narrow cot.

"This must be where the priests come to meditate and pray," Marc said.

"No. I bet this is where they interrogate their prisoners before torturing them," Denis said, but not as loudly as he'd spoken in the boat.

Margaret Rose giggled. They continued on to the main lodge, braver now as they walked freely around it. A sign above the door designated it as Villa des pins. They peered through its front windows. The furniture inside was old and made of wood. A large stone fireplace had been built into a far wall.

"This looks like my grandmother's place" Denis joked.

"I'll bet there's lots of ghosts in here," said Marc.

Constance saw Denis make a small motion towards Margaret Rose. Her sister smiled and the two of them disappeared around a corner. Constance heard a squeal followed by laughter. Idiots, she thought.

Constance continued up the hill behind the lodge. The next building she came to looked like a small chapel. The board nailed above its sill read Villa de l'Assomption. She remembered from her catechism how Mary the Immaculate Virgin had not died but been called directly up into Heaven because of her purity and goodness.

The windows here were too high up. She headed around to the back where there was a lower window, but it was too dark inside to see anything.

Back at the lodge she heard Marc call out, then footsteps running across the porch, followed by more laughter and a crashing through the trees.

On the hill behind Villa de l'Assomption was a small vegetable garden. Constance took her sandals off at the edge of it, holding them by the straps as she walked across the cool earth.

Rotting tomatoes lay on the ground beneath dying plants. The onions were badly in need of picking, their tops brown and withered. The bulbs had grown through the soil and sat burning in the sun. Aphids covered everything.

Constance felt a stillness. She looked up. Everything was motionless except for the tops of the poplars and giant pines moving heavily as they bent down to her, then pulled away again.

Farther up the hill, perched at an odd angle, sat a metal basin with a tap at one end. Beyond that, at the very top, stood a large stone edifice set apart from everything else.

Constance stopped to catch her breath. She heard Margaret Rose and the boys somewhere down below. The grass on the hill felt slippery and smooth beneath her bare feet. The stillness and the sunlight wove a comforting cloak around her.

She climbed until she reached the basin. Inside, a dirty rag hung on the rusted tap over the drain. The bottom was stained with silt and layers of residue from the summer's storms. That was all.

Beyond the basin the grass ended abruptly. A patch of wild raspberries stretched between her and the rocky hill top. She recognized the thorny stems and broad green leaves from expeditions along dusty roads in the region to pick berries for her mother, although on these bushes there was no longer any fruit.

Constance made her way up the hill, stepping from stone to stone to avoid scratching herself on the thorns. She had nearly reached the top when she heard her name. The sound seemed to come from far away.

Constance turned. Margaret Rose and the boys were heading back down to the boat. They looked tiny and distant, hardly real at all, as they moved slowly towards the water.

She continued upwards till she stood level with the edifice. There was a hole in its top and through one side. The interior was blackened and charred. She guessed it had once been an oven. Her mother told her how she had cooked on a stone oven when she was a little girl, long before she met their father. How long ago that must have been, Constance thought.

A breeze blew through the top and out the side, making a faint whistling noise. Cobwebs clung to the walls and quivered in the breeze. Everything was perfectly still, as though it had all been waiting for her.

She stood level with the tops of the trees now. They seemed so close. She felt a chill and looked around. Down at the beach her sister and the boys had reached the boat. She could barely hear them calling her. She shivered when she saw how far away they were.

Constance looked at the pile of stones with the wind blowing through it. She wondered why it had been left behind and where the men who built it had gone. Maybe they, like her father, had lost something and gone away to find it.

She reached out her hand to touch the face of ancient stone. A twig snapped under her foot. She held her breath, listening. Nothing happened. Slowly, almost apologetically, she withdrew her hand from the stone.

She began to walk back down the hill, one step at a time. Then suddenly she began to run. She ran through the raspberry bushes, thorns catching at her feet and legs, and back through the overgrown garden.

She kept running, faster and faster, down the hill towards the lake and back to the beach. Whatever her father had lost, whatever he was searching for, Constance suddenly knew, she would spend her whole life running away from or trying to find.

© Jeffrey Round 1999

 
 

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