Second Prize


His Darlings, the TreesDandenault_Juliette-Headshot-Cr-Michael-Hemingway

by Juliette Dandenault





We first met Marios on the last real day of fall. Momma was working in the garden. I handed her a spade, I remember.

“I think it might be time to bring the geraniums in,” she told me. “It’s getting cold. I’ve been listening to the radio. They say there might be frost tonight.”

That’s the kind of woman she was, my mother. The kind who got her gardening advice from the breaks in between Saturday morning radio shows. I looked up, into the alley.

“Momma,” I said. “Momma, there’s a man at the gate.”

We’d been living in Montreal for a while now, and we had seen the man in the alleyway before. He was a strange little person, that man; short and white haired and very Greek indeed. He had a handlebar moustache that danced when he talked, danced a duet with his eyes. Yes, we had seen him before, puttering about, scolding little boys and squirrels alike, but we had never been of much importance to each other.

“Bonjour,” said my mother, accent thick, standing and wiping the dirt from her hands.

“Bonjour,” he replied. And then, in broken French, “Is your husband home? It is time to bury the trees.”

Our landlord, Fabio—who drove a little black Alfa Romeo, and always wore a freshly pressed white shirt, and assured us that he did indeed read Margaret Atwood—had warned us that this day would come. But that had been months ago. By then, the strange idea of underground trees had itself been buried under all sorts of other, more urgent things, like hydro bills and my mother’s manuscripts.

Our house had once belonged to Fabio’s parents, but when they died he and his sister had decided to rent it out. They hadn’t changed much. The place had a distinctly Italian feel, from the dusty couches to the paintings of Mount Vesuvius on the walls. There were giant bottles in wicker baskets in the basement that had been used for making wine, and stuck into the top corner of the pantry, underneath the dryer tubes, was a medallion with a saint unknown to us stamped into its surface.

The atmosphere wasn’t the only thing his parents had left behind, though. In the garden, just outside my bedroom window, were two fig trees. Now that we lived in the apartment, with the lost saints, we also lived with them. The trees, brought to the city from the Old World, were—much like their owners—not meant to endure harsh winters. They had to be protected. Marios had always helped Fabio’s father with this particular task, and he didn’t intend to let anyone’s death get in the way of his duty.

My father had gone out somewhere, exploring the neighbourhood on his bicycle, but he was a man of impeccable timing. Just as my mother began to explain his whereabouts to Marios, he pulled up by the fence. The two men shook hands and Marios explained once again that the time for the burial had come. My father didn’t argue. He rarely did. They left us to go on an expedition to hunt down suitable materials. As they walked away, my mother and I looked at each other.

“What do you think they’ll come back with?” I wondered.

“I haven’t the slightest,” she replied.

We left it at that.

Later they returned, dragging behind themselves a mirror, a coil of rope, and a shovel. I’m not sure how long they had been gone, but it was colder now. Marios looked very pleased with himself. He put us all to work, directing as we pulled up the season’s tomato plants and kale to make way for the burial ground. When we had finished he had us tear all the leaves off the trees. We were careful at first, afraid of broken branches, but before long we let go of our fears and soon the trees were bare. I felt as though I had plucked the feathers from a bird. Marios took the rope and wound it around the naked trees, trussing them like massive turkeys. He shooed us away then, and Papa began to dig. He threw shovel after shovel of soil onto the garden path while Marios danced about, yelling in that high-pitched voice of his. He loved the trees and he was not going to let anyone hurt them.

When Marios was happy with the size of the hole, he and my father took hold of the turkey trees and, one at a time, bent them down into the earth. When they were settled, Papa laid the mirror on top. It was just a sheet of plywood with glass on one side, really, but the sky reflected off it, grey with the threat of winter.

Papa began to bury the trees. The soil that he had taken away from the garden to dig his hole was replaced. Little by little it covered the sky. But it was late now, and as the sky disappeared it began to change, turning pink with the setting sun.

The sky went black and the job was done. Our trees were gone. Marios thanked my papa and hobbled back to his garden across the alley, where his own trees awaited him. An unspoken agreement said that Papa would help him with those later, but apart from that, the frost could come as it pleased.

Papa collected people. They were people who had gotten left behind, people who had been forgotten. Papa was just the kind of person that you couldn’t help getting along with, and if he decided that he liked you, you were stuck with him. His people weren’t fancy, or rich, or necessarily entirely well integrated into society, but they definitely had personality.

Burying the trees had brought Marios and my father together, and from that day on he became just another part of the collection, and of our lives. We learned many things about him in those first few months. We learned that he was hard-working, and passionate, and that when something got in the way of what he wanted, he stopped it. He was a logical man—to a certain extent—but I thought he was crazy.

Marios despised squirrels. He hated them almost as much as he hated the people of Turkey, who had years ago chased him from his homeland. He was, first and foremost, a gardener, and so his life was a constant struggle against those things that threatened his gourds. When he learned how Marios felt about squirrels, Papa got straight to work, plotting a scheme with which he could make his new friend happy. He worked in the country, and one night he came home with a smile on his face and a box in his hands.

“Look what I’ve got,” he said.

He opened the box, and inside was a cage. It was about two feet long and half as wide. It had a funny pedal contraption inside it. I had no idea what it was for. My mother and I stared at it blankly.

“Well?” he asked, hopeful.

We shrugged.

“It’s a live trap!” he explained. “For the squirrels! Marios doesn’t want to kill them, so I brought it in from work. I’ll bring it over after supper. I think he’ll like it.”

Marios did indeed like it. They set it up straight away even though most of his vegetables were long gone by this time, harvested and hidden away in some cellar. Neither of them was quite sure how exactly one went about capturing a squirrel, never having had any prior use for the knowledge, but they decided that some sort of bait would probably be a good place to start. They used peanuts.

For a full week nothing happened. And then one morning I was sitting in my room and I heard a yell.

“Iosif! Iosif!” Papa’s name is Joseph. “Iosif! We have a prisoner!”

I looked out my door and there stood Marios, happier than I had ever seen him. Back hunched, moustache dancing, talking to my father about their hostage. They saw me.

“I’ll be back later,” Papa told me. “We’re going to drive it away.”

“Where are you taking it?” I asked.

“Mount Royal.”

“But that’s all the way across the city!”

“Marios wants to make sure it won’t come back,” he explained.

I sighed. They left.

From then on until it snowed, that’s how it was. Once, sometimes twice a week, some unsuspecting squirrel would wander into the trap and my father would drive it across town to deposit it in its new home. It was a display of true dedication.

Marios liked to give us things. Whether his presents were meant as a sign of friendship, or gratitude, or both, they were definitely plentiful. Most of the time it was food. Mysterious fried leaves stuffed with things, and cookies, and vegetables that he had somehow saved from the summer. Occasionally we were presented with a plate full of fresh white cheese, big enough to last us weeks.

These things appeared in my life, and I took them for granted. But when the snow arrived, they stopped. Marios was nowhere to be seen. He was hibernating, like his darlings, the trees, and his enemies, the squirrels.

The months passed and our presence in the neighbourhood was noted. Agata Rosabella—whose husband always seemed to me to be on his deathbed—came over with a plate piled high with Christmas pastries.

“For you,” she told my mother. “For you and the little one.”

I was the little one.

My mother took the biscuits and we ate them, our fingers and chins coated with sugar. But a week went by and the plate never seemed to empty itself. Agata’s offering was never-ending. Finally, my mother had had enough.

“What are we going to do?” she asked hopelessly, one night at supper.

The cookies on their plastic plate had been pushed to the far end of the table, where they stared us down, waiting for our next move.

“I can’t stand the sight of them any longer.”

“So throw them out,” said my father, ever a practical man.

“No, I can’t do that, she’ll know!”

“How could she know?”

“She’d know.” A pause. “I could feed them to the squirrels.”

“There are no squirrels. Papa and Marios drove them all away,” I said, irritably. I missed the squirrels. “And besides, if she’d notice them in the garbage, she’d certainly notice them thrown all over the garden.”

“We’ll see,” said my mother.

One by one the cookies disappeared, until only crumbs were left. The remaining squirrels were plump.

As the cookies went, so did the comfort of their holiday. The days were short and bleak, filled with puddles of slush and wet socks. They passed slowly, one at a time, as things tend to do when they are unpleasant. But finally the sun returned, and the snow began to melt, and once in a while you could hear a chorus of birds chirping.

I came home one day, and a plate of cheese lay on the top step. A big white mound, freshly pressed, with the pattern of its mould etched into its sides. Covered in Saran Wrap in the hope that no harm would come to it. I picked it up and walked inside. Put it on the table. Closed the door. Marios had returned, and with him came the spring.
 

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