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Orchids - rhea daniel

She looked at the rich upholstered furniture around her. The carpet that covered the floor was rather old and moth-eaten. The chair that she sat on had almost swallowed her in. The teacup and saucer trembled in her hand.

“Careful, that’s Italian silk. Rubelli,” said a raspy voice.

She jumped and snapped her head around like a frightened bird.

“Who--?” she faltered.

“Here,” the voice sounded tired. An ancient, worn tiredness. It seemed to be coming from the table in front of where she was sitting.

The table seemed to have come straight out of a grotesque painting by Grünewald. The surface was made of intertwined slender branches supported by four human arms. The muscles on the arms were clearly defined as if they were truly straining from the weight of the branches above them. Each claw-like hand rested on a smooth wooden ball.

“Er...”

“Yes, me, table,” it addressed her.

“Ok,” she frowned, perplexed, and shifted uncomfortably.

“Not often we get company,” the table said conversationally.

“I’m…just passing through,” she mumbled into her teacup.

The table laughed, a low laugh of an old man with weak lungs.

“Yes, yes, well aware.”

Then the table actually coughed, and hunching, raised one hand in a gesture typical of a human covering his mouth. The intertwining branches creaked with each movement.

“Oh dear.”

The ball that the hand was resting on had rolled away and clicked the tip of her high-heeled shoe.

“My dear, would you--?”

“Oh, yes, of course.”

She got up hurriedly and rolled the ball towards the table with her hand, thinking it would be impolite to do it with her foot.

The arm reached blindly for the ball so she grabbed it by the wrist and guided it. There was nothing remotely human about what she felt under her fingers. It was made of smooth polished wood. The table creaked and groaned as it regained its balance.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

She sat down primly on the silk upholstered chair again and regarded the whole room with a serious stare. The wallpaper was a dark, swirly damask. The light shades on the walls were supported on the backs of tiny men. They did not talk. The only picture in the room was a framed collection of fish fossils, skeletal remains of some extinct species, their names marked on parchment. They all, however, had beady glass eyes. They blinked wanly at her, and she quickly looked away.

The trick was not to look at anything for too long, So she let her eyes roam all over the room until she was dizzy.

“Are you quite finished, madam?”

Her eyes took sometime to focus on whom the voice came from. A tall old man in a waistcoat and a polka-dotted bow tie stood in front of her, cane in hand.

“Mr. Crosby,” she jumped up hurriedly, and put out her hand.

“Sit down.”
She did.

“Miss Wheaton, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

He turned around slowly as he spoke, and began to walk around the room tapping his cane to the ground.

“I presume you are here to, ah, apologize.”

“Yes, I’m very very sorry…”

“Do you know how much effort it takes to grow an orchid, Miss Wheaton?” he interrupted

“Yes I’m very very…”

“The right type of soil, the weather conditions, the fertilizer….hm?” he stopped in front of her and knocked his heels together.

“And most of all, Miss Wheaton! MOST of all---!!!” his voice rose and stopped.

“Ummm..” she ventured.

“Love,”

“Love,” she echoed.

“Do you see these, Miss Wheaton?” he held up three photographs of some rather obscenely shaped plants.

“This is Oliver, this is Jennifer and this, madam, the youngest and the most promising, Kenny,” he put down the photographs on her lap and whispered, “All gone.”

She looked at the plants for what she hoped was a polite amount of time.

“I realize my brother…”

“Your brother, madam, your brother ---!!” he stopped again and his whole body seemed to shake with rage, “Ate them.”

“Ate them?”

“Ate. Them.”

“Well, he did have a tummy-ache after....”

“And what do you plan to do about it?”

“Er..I’m very very sorry ..”

“Oh come on Mac, let the old girl go, what’s done is done.” It was the table’s voice.

“You stay out of this,” snapped Crosby in the direction of the table.

“Aww, come on Mac, let her go!” a squeaky voice issued from one of the fish skeletons.

“Let her gooooo,” they all said together, their spines writhing.

“I will not let her ‘Go’, do you hear me? So shut it, the lot of you,” barked Crosby.

“Aww, crotchety old thing,” scolded one of the cherubs holding the lamp and tore off a piece of the wallpaper.

“Aaarghh,” the damask’s swirly faces frowned in irritation.

“There dear, blow yer nose with this,” the piece of wallpaper was handed down to the table who gave it to the girl in manner reflecting compassion, as much a wooden table could muster.

“Er.. I’m not. …er..thankyou,” she said graciously, and pretended to use the crumbly paper on her nose.

The dust from it made her sneeze.

“See, you made her ill.”

“Stay out of this!” yelled Crosby, his spine stretched backwards and his fists curled, “Or I’ll burn the lot of ya! Along with this Godforsaken hovel of a house!”

The house’s foundations shuddered in response to the threat.

“I mean it!” said Crosby, “I spent years preparing for them, and look what its come down to. My babies are crunched up by some brat!”

He glared at the inhabitants of the room.

“Don’t you belittle my pain!” His voice broke and he took a moment to control the sob that was rising. He took a deep breath.

“Confound it,” he whispered.

All this time Miss Wheaton had been thinking furiously about how to deal with the angry old man, she hadn’t expected it to be an emotional issue, merely a financial one. She also had not expected a talking house. Well she had done a bit of research before coming. Eccentric old man, old house, rich, loves plants. She just wondered how anyone could be interested in plants with names like Bladderwort and Wormwood. And then baptize them with Christian names.

One of the things she was no good at dealing with was people. Jimmy was better at charming; unfortunately he was the cause of the problem and having him meet the man whose prize orchids he destroyed would make matters worse. Compensation was not the answer either, as useless as an apology, for the old man did not seem short of material things, however decrepit and ..garrulous. A story she had read as a child emerged from a cloudy memory. A witch who turned people who could not repay their debts into amusing toys that filled her four-legged house. It was possible the Grünewald table had been an antique dealer who’s business had suffered bankruptcy, the three fish fossils were impoverished widows, all who had been unable to pay back loans, all trapped into the old man’s evil web of transmogrifications, permanently reduced into household curiosities. She imagined herself as a disused instrument, old and battered and forgotten in a corner. A violin perhaps, with a sad look of dejection and melancholy. Paying for her brothers’ misdeeds, as usual.

When she looked up Mr. Crosby was staring at her expectantly with a “Well?” expression on his face. Her silence only seemed to infuriate him further, so she opened and closed her mouth like a fish while he slowly turned purple with impatience. The house seemed to sense a gathering storm; an explosion of thunder seemed eminent. The explosion never came, for a fleeting thought interrupted, and his expression changed from rage to thoughtfulness to resignation within seconds. He turned, put both his hands over his face and sighed deeply.

“No…no,” he said staring out of the window, “None of this will bring back my babies. Why did he eat them though, Miss Wheaton, did you ever care to think? Did the he ever care to think of the completely unnecessary act of cruelty in biting their heads off? I saw teeth marks on their stems. Didn’t seem to be the act of a human.” He turned to her with one eyebrow raised.

She felt a tremendous surge of pity for the old man whose only solace in his old age was his odd little garden and the curiosities in his house. He sensed her pity and was embarrassed by it.

“Tell your brother not to set foot in my garden again,” he said, and turning, left the room.

She walked herself out of the house, many a “bye-bye!” and “do come again!” trailing behind her from the odd pieces of furniture.

She stopped to look at the garden on her way home. It had a wild look to it. Despite that, she could see it had been nurtured and cared for by the owner. Water hyacinths grew in a murky pond beside rose bushes and rubber plants, white lilies and geraniums. Some were grown in pots and others grew out of the ground. Pink rhododendrons and varieties of shrubs managed to find their space in the confused jungle of plants. The three beheaded orchids stood out, the damage glaringly obvious. She wondered how the old man looked after all these plants that seemed to bloom all at the same time. Then her eyes fell on the tiny goblin perched on the rim of the stone birdbath. He was about ten inches tall and precariously balanced on the rim. He was a marvelous piece of work in bronze. Her eyes searched the garden and found four more of these. Two seemed to have frozen in the act of chasing each other around the pond. Two sat on the branches of the rhododendrons, seemingly looking in the direction of the neighbour’s house. Her house.

She made her way home in a flurry of thought, going over what she had just seen and heard.

A water balloon hurled with precise aim at her face greeted her as she entered. It burst and drenched her with some vile smelling liquid. Jimmy could be heard snorting with laughter as he ran up the stairs to hide in his room. She stood stone still for a few seconds, then went straight to her room, stiff with anger.

“I don’t see why we had to apologise in the first place. Jimmy could have died eating those awful plants,” said her mother at dinnertime.

“It’s the polite thing to do, Maggie. What did he say, Libby?” asked her father.

“Oh…nothing. Just asked Jimmy not to set foot in his garden again,” answered Libby.

Libby saw her brothers’ eyes gleam as if this was an open invitation.

“Poor baby,” said her mother, running her hand through his golden curls, “Don’t go to that silly old man’s garden again, alright?”

“I won’t Mama,” said Jimmy in his angels’ voice.

Libby had been a happy twelve year old before Jimmy had been born. She was then demoted from daughter to nursemaid and her life was never the same again. Jimmy had looked harmless enough but Libby soon came to learn of his freakishly cruel secret adventures. Only Libby was aware of his Jekyll and Hyde act. She had seen him pull the legs of sparrows, crush garden caterpillars, tear the wings of butterflies and mercilessly kick or crush any living creature smaller than him that crossed his path. Oh, she had tried telling Mama and Papa but they couldn’t believe the angelic looking Jimmy was capable of hurting a fly. Her violin practice suffered, and one day she had come home to find her violin case tampered with, and the remains of it scattered in bits and pieces around the house. She showed her parents the broken bits and was about to explode in a fit of pent up rage, when Jimmy had emerged from behind the curtain, tears in his puppy blue eyes, apologizing profusely, saying he only tried to play it and dropped it from the landing when it slipped from his hands. He had tried to fix it and failed. The apology melted his parents and Libby grudgingly made her peace. The violin was too expensive to be replaced, and Jimmy's escapades seemed to worsen as time passed by.

Libby was woken up the next morning with a cry of “My azaleas!” followed by a moan that issued from the direction of Mr. Crosby’s house. She sighed and decided she wanted no part of it. She walked to school as usual, followed by Jimmy who passed by on his bicycle, splattering her with mud from a puddle, laughing uproariously at her annoyance. She happened to glance at Mr. Crosby’s house and saw him standing at the window, watching. The next day she heard a howl issue forth from the same direction, “My roses!”

It had been a year since Jimmy had gone missing. Libby felt her life had improved considerably since then. She did not miss him one bit. His absence was sorely felt by his parents, who had called the police when Jimmy was found missing from his bed one morning. The first suspect was the old neighbour, Mr. Crosby. His house and garden was meticulously searched for any signs of the missing boy. They found nothing but odd-looking furniture and plants. Mr. Crosby watched the whole search party impassively, allowed his fingerprints to be recorded and answered all the questions he was asked politely.

Libby used to walk back every day from school and peer into the garden, for the growth and variety had only intensified, and she wondered how such exotic plants grew there without being put in a hot house. Orchids grew uninterrupted. Today she felt a little bolder and walked further down the garden path. The five goblins were frozen in the middle of activities like running, jumping, pruning; their goblin grins gleeful and uninhibited.

Her eyes came to rest on the birdbath that had a new bronze addition to its center, a cherub with wavy curls and wings, balancing on one toe with a watering can in one chubby fist. Its expression however, despite its angelic attributes, was that of unmitigated fury.


- rhea daniel
darkness_box[at]yahoo[dot]com

4 Comments:

At 1:36 AM, Anonymous nitin said...

hi
read ur story "after" reading ur desperate message in the latest story :-)

and really found it good. otherwise would have missed. sometimes even the best people have to shout out to be heard! :-)

good luck!

 
At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Minaz said...

loved it! and what a thrill knowing the author! waiting to read more of your work, rhea:))

 
At 9:55 AM, Anonymous J said...

Did you know that a lot of people read comments and not everyone ends up posting comments ?

Like yours truly, didnt put down any comments till i saw yours in the latest story. My attention span is normally limited, but this story I couldnt stop reading till i finished. I was particularly impressed how the story ended.

Hope to see a lot more stories from you in the near future ...

 
At 7:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi rhea! nice story indeed, well written... don't have a missing younger brother do you? ;D - patrick

 

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