by Ron Van Sweringen
When Mark Holland bought the small cottage that afternoon in 1952, he wasn’t particularly mindful of the garden overgrown with weeds. The stone building with its weathered green shutters was what sold him, along with the solitude surrounding it.
“This is a little piece of the world that has fallen off,” he thought aloud, “a place where a lost soul belongs.” A place where he could live or die and not be praised or condemned by the rest of the world for whichever path he chose. “Time will tell,” he sighed, trying to maneuver his wheelchair over a stubborn tree root in his path.
“I can help you with that,” a woman’s voice caught him off guard. She was short in stature, standing in the shade of an oak tree.
“No need,” he answered aggressively, using all of his strength in one violent thrust to propel the wheel chair over the root. “There,” he announced, taking a deep breath, “over and done with.”
“Good for you,” the voice replied. “Stamina is to be admired, but blind pride is not. You could have capsized and found yourself lying on the ground with no way to get up.”
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Mark asked, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
“My name is Susan Wilkes. This used to be my cottage until the bank took it away for unpaid taxes. Now it’s your cottage, Mr. Holland.”
“You know my name,” Mark replied, surprise in his voice.
“Yes indeed,” she replied with the same hard-edged tone. “Your name was listed as the new owner on the eviction notice I received a month ago. A piece of paper that has changed my life.”
Mark felt embarrassed and awkward. He was told when he bought the cottage that the owner would be evicted, but he had convinced himself it wasn’t his problem. It was easy then; he didn’t have a name or a face to deal with. Now it was different, and he was more than a little uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry you’ve lost your home,” he said slowly. “I wish I could do something to help you, but I haven’t much money. Actually, after paying for the cottage I’m almost broke, except for my disability check each month, and that’s no great shakes.”
“If it’s enough to live on, then you’re rich as far as I’m concerned.” Even though her words were still hard-edged, Mark sensed that they were not meant to be demeaning, just truthful.
“Where are you living?” he asked with hesitation, afraid of what the answer might be.
“In a lean-to,” was the reply, “ in the forest, where no one cares about squatters.”
“You can’t live like that,” Mark, said sharply. “Winter is coming, you’ll freeze to death.” His words were shocking, and he couldn’t believe he’d said them. The truth was, he couldn’t believe the situation now staring him in the face.
Susan made no reply, nervously clasping her hands in front of her.
“Look here, “ Mark said at length. “You did a good job of keeping the cottage tidy and clean. As you can see, I’m limited in that area. Would you consider becoming my housekeeper? I can’t pay you much, but you’ll have room and board and a little money in return.”
“You mean I could still live in my cottage?” she replied, as if it were too good to be true.
“Yes,” Mark said, “there are two bedrooms. You can take the one upstairs and I suppose we can share the bathroom if you’ve a mind to.”
“I do.” The reply came quickly and then there was a pause. “I won’t try to thank you with words, but I will do my best to see that you’re comfortable.”
“Good, in that case” — Mark smiled — “Maybe you can start by helping me get back over this damn tree root.”
The autumn months passed quietly in the little cottage. Mark spent the afternoons in his wheelchair, reading in the warm sunshine by the French doors leading to the neglected garden.
Susan kept busy cleaning, cooking and doing the laundry for the two of them. Her voice could often be heard humming as she worked. The sound was strange at first, but as time went on Mark came to enjoy it, even missing it when it stopped.
One chilly afternoon in November, Mark called out to Susan. “Come quick and see this!”
Susan hurried from the kitchen, alarmed by the excitement in his voice. She found him in his usual spot.
“Look at it!” he exclaimed, pointing beyond the French doors. “It’s the most beautiful rose I’ve ever seen, and it’s growing out of a weed patch. How did it get there?”
Susan looked at the magnificent flower with astonishment. “My husband planted a rose bush there years ago, but I was sure it had died. I was never one for gardening, didn’t have the touch. My John could grow anything. There were flowers everywhere when he was alive.” Her voice trailed off and Mark clearly saw the look of sadness in her eyes.
“That settles it,” Mark replied. “This spring we are going to bring that garden back to life. We have all winter to plan it out. Are you willing to give it a try?”
“Yes,” Susan answered, “If you really think we can do it.”
“I do,” Mark, replied. “You’d never guess it now, but I was a pretty good farmer before I took a load of shrapnel in my back, in Germany.”
Susan made no remark, returning to the kitchen. It was the first time Mark had made any reference to how he became disabled. The knowledge was doubly painful because her husband had been killed fighting the same war.
One evening a few days later, after dinner, Mark placed a large sheet of paper on the dining room table and began to draw on it. Susan watched him from the kitchen doorway. She noted how meticulous he was working over the paper with a pencil and ruler.
“I’ve laid out the perimeters of the garden,” he said. “Now the hard work begins. Come and let’s begin to figure out where everything goes.”
Susan pulled a chair up to the table, for the first time that evening enjoying the glow from the small fireplace that made the room warm and cozy.
“Let’s begin with the roses,” Mark said. “Since we know where John wanted them, we have a good starting point.”
Susan put her hand to her face briefly. After a moment, she said, “Yes, and I know exactly the kind to get.”
Copyright © 2015 by Ron Van Sweringen