By Fikret Pajalic
Irma’s granddaughter Esme had been sick, on and off, for nearly two months. The girl would get a fever and chills, she’d get better for a while and then get sick again. She’d vomit and wake up sweaty, her feet and hands cold, her lips pale. Esme missed a lot of school days. Irma’s daughter Tina and her son-in-law Morris took a lot of time off work.
Not long ago, Morris’ manager at work pulled him aside in the lunchroom. The manager said they all have children and they all sympathise with his situation, but if he continued to take more time off “they” would have to talk to him.
“Officially,” the manager added. “In a meeting.”
“Officially,” Morris replied, “they can go to hell,” and bumped his boss with his shoulder as he walked away.
Irma knew all this from conversations with her daughter.
“They’re a little bit better at the school, but I still get glances,” Tina told her mother.
“Some people have no heart, darling,” Irma consoled her.
A little after that Irma decided to come and give them a hand. She called her daughter and told her she was coming. Tina started to say that it wasn’t necessary, but was interrupted.
“I’ll take the small room next to the laundry,” Irma said. “I’m coming with two bags.”
Irma parked on the street and walked into the front yard. A carpet of leaves greeted her. They were everywhere—on the lawn, in the driveway, on top of the garage, in the gutters. She peeked in the backyard and it was even worse there. Somebody had raked two piles of leaves. They looked wet and dark and were heaped under one of the maple trees. Recently fallen leaves were scattered on top of the piles.
At the front door, Irma and her daughter hugged and kissed. Tina’s eyes were red and sunken. She had been crying. Mother and daughter said nothing to each other. They embraced in the doorway, Irma still outside, and they held each other for some time. The cold wind penetrated the house and the ducted heating kicked in at the drop in temperature. A low humming noise, like the murmur of an injured beast, came from somewhere in the back of the house. Irma’s son-in-law ushered them inside. Later, when they settled on the sofa, Morris thanked Irma for coming.
“The doctors are saying they would like to observe her in hospital for a week or so. They think they’d be able to monitor her ups and downs. They think it could be something in her environment that’s making her sick.” Morris held his knees as he talked.
“We’re taking her to the hospital tomorrow,” Tina spoke.
Irma nodded. She could read between the lines. The doctors had no clue what was going on. She’d seen this before with her husband. When her husband fell ill Irma knew it was serious, but was afraid to say anything. Sometimes all it took was for things to be said out loud and they became real. It had taken her husband’s doctors a month to pinpoint the problem. His sickness got a name and one of the doctors used the word aggressive when describing it to her.
In a matter of days his condition deteriorated. He was connected to drip lines and tubes and monitors. She was home making soup for him when it all happened. She returned to the hospital and held a container, still hot, full of minestrone soup wrapped in a kitchen towel when a nurse told her that his condition had deteriorated.
He never opened his eyes after that and they never spoke again. Many months later Irma wracked her brain trying to remember what was the last thing said between them. To this day she wasn’t able to recall the conversation.
At the time, Irma was convinced her husband would have lived a little longer if they had just told him it was back pain. Back pain is something that goes away. Back pain gives you hope. If you are lucky you can die in your sleep from it.
“She’s sleeping,” Tina said.
“I’ll go have a peek.” Irma stood up. “You two stay here.”
Irma walked up the steps to the girl’s room. It was a dark and soggy winter afternoon. Esme looked peaceful in her sleep and the only signs of sickness were her slightly flushed cheeks. Irma pulled up a chair and sat down. The curtains were open and the window looked onto the large backyard. English ivy claimed most of the back fence. There were large strongholds of onion weed and thistle. Irma didn’t like thistle, with all those tiny spikes. She thought they were created for one purpose only—to hurt. Even with garden gloves on, thistle spikes would find a way to her skin. Sometimes, she looked at nature and she didn’t understand it. She thought a plant like thistle must have a purpose, but she could not see it.
Irma took the child’s hand and kissed it and gazed through the window again. It seemed to her that a blanket of leaves covered everything her eyes could reach, like snow. Except there was no calmness about the leaves. In her mind, leaves belonged on branches and if they were on the ground they should be removed. Leaves should not be spoiling the lawn. A compost bin was a good place for the leaves. They were useful in the bin.
Esme jerked her body and words came out of her mouth but Irma could not understand them. Her lips were dry and cracked. She kept talking and the only word Irma thought she could distinguish was chance. Or maybe it was dance.
Esme woke up.
“Granny, I’m thirsty.” She sat up in bed and pulled her knees to her chest.
There was no surprise in Esme’s voice or her eyes at seeing her grandmother at her bedside. Irma poured water into a glass and gave it to Esme who drank it in one long gulp. She then lay back and turned her body toward the window. Within a minute she was sleeping. Irma put her hand on her grandchild’s temple and held it there. She felt the vein under the skin throbbing. Esme’s forehead got real hot and Irma felt her skin burn.
Irma scanned the room. It was messy and smelled like a chemist shop. Tomorrow she would change the bedding, vacuum and mop the floor. Above the bed there was a large get-well card, blue-tacked to the wall. It was from Esme’s classmates. They all signed their names and some wrote small messages. At the bottom there was a big heart drawn in a thick red text: Get better, Class 8E.
Once more Irma touched the girl’s head and it felt a little less hot this time. Esme’s lips were dry and Irma decided she’d make some chicken soup tomorrow before her parents took her to hospital. Or maybe pumpkin soup, she thought. That’s easier on the stomach. Then she realised there was a strong chance there was no pumpkin in the house. Pumpkin is not a tomato.
Irma came back to the living room. From one of her bags she pulled out a clear bottle. She held it high and swirled the clear liquid inside it.
“Rakia,” she said, “from my neighbour. He makes it from his own plums. This will take care of her fever, for good. Soak woollen socks in this to draw out the fever.”
“We tried rakia, mum,” Tina said.
“I doubt there is an alcohol in the whole world stronger than this.”
Tina and Morris said nothing. They sat on the sofa in a trance. Sleepless nights and worry were taking its toll.
“Have you tried sliced potatoes in the socks?”
“Yes.” Tina smiled a little but her face quickly closed down.
Irma tried to think of more traditional remedies, but the only thing she thought of was rosehip tea. She knew rosehip tea to be chock full of vitamin C. She used to drink it every morning as a child. She suddenly wished her mother were alive, she’d know what had to be done.
For dinner Irma made sarma. Ground beef with rice and vegetables wrapped in sauerkraut leaves and slow cooked on the stovetop was her specialty and her son-in-law’s favourite. She also baked bread using the bread maker. Its aroma floated through the house.
They ate in silence. Irma ate while Tina and Morris pushed their food around the plate with pieces of bread.
“Eat it while it’s still warm. God knows you both need your strength back.”
Morris took a couple of spoons and complimented the meal.
“I’ll go shopping tomorrow after you take Esme to hospital. I also aim to do some gardening later in the week, if the weather permits. I’ll rake those leaves. They’re everywhere.” She made a sweeping motion with her hand.
“Thanks, mum, whatever you can do, we appreciate it.”
“My place was just as bad,” Irma said. “Leaves and more leaves. Far and wide. Did you notice how every couple of years there seem to be double or even triple the leaves than usual?”
Her daughter nodded absently.
“I’ll take care of the house first,” Irma said and her daughter thanked her again.
The next morning Morris carried Esme out of her room. Esme wanted to walk but her father insisted on carrying her. Tina just stood and watched.
“I can walk. I’ll show you. Put me down,” Esme demanded. She walked down the steps. There was no sign of her being unwell. In the hallway she put on her shoes and a jacket. Irma was in the kitchen cooking. She came to the hallway in an apron, holding a wooden spoon.
“A hug?” Esme said.
Grandmother and granddaughter embraced. Irma kissed her grandchild on the forehead and pinched her cheeks.
“You’ll have a nice soup later today. I’ll bring it over after you settle in.”
“It smells yummy. Thanks, granny.”
They hugged one more time and then Esme, Tina and Morris walked out.
On the third day of her stay Irma was ready for the leaves. She had finally put the house in order. She’d cleaned all the rooms, changed and washed all the bedding, got rid of all the rubbish, did six loads of washing, hung it to dry and then cooked a roast chicken for dinner. She was ready to attack the leaves. She tied her hair into a ponytail and pulled an old baseball hat on her head.
From the garden shed she got garden gloves, a rake and a wheelbarrow. She slipped into gumboots she found there. She started raking the leaves. They were soaked with the recent rain and the ground was slippery.
She worked for a few minutes when the neighbour’s head peered over the fence and greeted her. She knew the man in passing. He politely inquired about Esme.
“No change,” Irma said.
The man wished all the best. He looked up at the darkening sky.
“It’ll get too wet for raking soon,” he said and waved goodbye.
Irma worked for another ten minutes when a light rain started. It was back-breaking work, raking the sticky, decomposing leaves.
She had gathered two piles and was getting tired. She pressed on and attacked the corner of the yard. She jabbed the rake right into the lawn and it got stuck onto something. She bent and reached for some twigs that had caught in there.
It was a little star made from branches and tied with string. It was a headstone of sorts she had made together with Esme for the family cat that had passed away two winters ago.
She wondered if she’d find bones if she dug the earth. Her husband was buried not long after the cat. She would not be able to find his bones in the ground. His wish was to be cremated and his ashes to be spread in their backyard. She didn’t like the idea at the time.
“You want to burn twice?” she had asked him when he told her of his final wishes. They were writing their wills. He didn’t get her joke.
“You’ll burn in hell and you want to burn here on earth.” But her husband just smiled.
“Just do it, please. You won’t regret it,” he said. And she did cremate him and spread him around the garden. There was no one with her when she did it. She was careful, holding the urn close to the ground, making sure the wind didn’t take the ashes across the fence. She was surprised how fine the ashes were, like flour.
In time she got accustomed to the whole thing. For many years she loved her husband to the point of distraction. That was early on, when their love was fresh and when being without him for too long nearly caused her to choke. Now she walked into the backyard and her husband was all around her. In the grass, in the trees and flowers, in the small pond he dug so long ago.
“Frogs are important too. As much as birds,” he had told her as he dug.
Now when she was in her backyard, the choking feeling returned.
She heard a car pull up and she went to the front. Her daughter sat in the car, engine still running. She was looking straight at her but she didn’t see Irma waving. Tina put the car in reverse and drove a meter and then stopped. She sat there for another minute and then she cut the engine. She came out of the car and noticed Irma.
“Her body temperature went too high and they put her in an induced coma to regulate it,” Tina said with no expression on her face. “I’ll have a shower and a nap and head back.”
Irma watched her daughter go into the house. She headed after her and got to the porch steps. She stood there with her right foot on the step and then returned to the backyard. She continued raking.
Soon the rain started coming down and the wind picked up in strength. Earlier, she was close to giving up but now she had an excuse. She would listen to the rain. The rain was always right. Besides, the leaves put up a stiff resistance. They didn’t want to be collected and she could not fight them. Not today.
A black bird jumped in front her. Irma got startled. A loud fluted warble came out of its yellow beak. The bird was calling its partner, Irma thought. The rain is coming, the blackbird was saying. The bird flapped its wings and hid in the bottlebrush tree.
Irma took her garden gloves off and tossed them in the wheelbarrow. She looked around the backyard and then walked over to the old pile of leaves under the maple tree. She went down on her knees. The coldness of the earth spread through her bones. It’ll take forever to warm up later, this she knew.
She picked up a bunch of decaying leaves and stood up, bracing against the tree trunk. The leaves were wet and cold and dark. Some were near black. Most disintegrated when she squashed them. But a few stayed intact. She cast her eyes on the trees and they were all bare. Never again would they adorn the limbs of trees.
Irma opened up her hands and watched leaves slip through her fingers. Bits stuck to her skin. She clapped her hands together and wiped them on her thighs. She looked at her hands again. A few small remnants were still on her palms. You could not tell anymore they were once leaves. She lifted her hands closer to her face. She noticed deep creases on her palms and liver spots around her wrists. The wind and rain lashed her face and she closed her eyes. She felt the burning of Esme’s forehead on her cold palm again.
Fikret Pajalic came to Melbourne as a refugee and learnt English in his mid-twenties. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in anthologies and literary magazines Overland, Westerly, Etchings, The Big Issue, Mascara, Writer’s Edit, Regime, Verity La, Gargouille, Verge Annual, Seizure, 21D, Tincture, Fjords Review (USA), Structo (UK), and JAAM (NZ). He is working on a short story collection funded by Arts Victoria.