Wildflowers: part 9

by jamesmerolla

On a bright, sunny morning, three years before John went to war (by Marla’s recollection) the two lovers lay in a sweat soaked bed in the corner of an attic apartment, high above the Parisian streets.

John’s mother named Marla’s apartment ‘the whore’s love nest’. She’d say it often at night with the same casual passivity she used to turn the pages of her book while sitting upright in bed with her husband. She said it as if she didn’t know John could hear the conversations through the walls of their old house. It shaped every rebellious gaze John cast upon Marla.

This, of course, was before Marla was loved by John’s mother, when she was just a wild gentile freed from the constraints of home, and he a restless Jew discovering the feet beneath him. The war was brooding in the east, but still far enough away for  lovers to forget for moments at a time.

On that particular sunny day Marla rose from the bed to linger by the window, as she often did. She liked to look down on the streets and be the eyes unseen. There was a funeral procession passing below, without any indication as to who had died and why, but Marla didn’t wonder. Instead she focused on one man’s face. He was a man just a shade past his prime with a long Mediterranean air, creased at the cheeks. His dark eyes were vacant and respectfully stared the way mourners do, as he walked in rhythm with the parade of shuffles on the cobble stone street. Marla wondered how close he was to the deceased, and if his solemn face was sincere.

She turned to speak to John, and noticed the picture of her and her grandmother on the night stand. She remembered it was taken on a sad day, the day of a cousin’s funeral. They were both smiling and in their best dresses, dresses only worn for such occasions. It was the only picture she owned of the woman who raised her.

     It’s a beautiful day. We should leave before it gets too hot in here.

     Where should we go?

     We can go to the theater. There’s a wonderful film playing I’d like to see.

     How do you know it’s wonderful without seeing it?

     Because it has a happy ending someone ruined for me the other day.

     Who ruined it for you?

     The woman I work with at the flower shop, Rosemarie. She’s a wretched woman. I suspect she enjoys ruining things.

     Why don’t we go see Marc and Lydia? They’ve been pestering us to come see their “getaway” since the summer began.

     I know, but it’s so far out of the way, and though I like Lydia, Marc hasn’t been the same since that incident last winter.

     Marla, you’re still holding that against him? He didn’t know you were with me, and he was drunk.

     What about Lydia? He did it right in front of her. What man gets too drunk to forget he has a wife? To be perfectly honest, I’d completely forget about it if he didn’t look at me the way he does.

     You’re right. I see it too. If we’re both being honest I’m not sure why I still call Marc a friend. I guess it’s always been Lydia whose company I enjoyed.

Marla climbed back in bed and wrapped her arms around John.

     More than my company?

     I enjoy Lydia’s company, but I need yours.

     You’re a sweet enough man that even if I thought you were lying I’d trust you.

She kissed him, and looked down at their hands interlocked across his chest.

     Do you ever wonder what happens to the world after you die?

     No, and why do you ask such a strange question?

     I don’t know. But I hope we die together so there will be twice as many people at the funeral.

     I’m very glad I love you, or else I’d find you strange.

     I’m very glad I find you strange, or else I might not love you.

Marla stood at the edge of her wilted garden with arms crossed, and looked out over the field. The grey shroud of dusk was beginning to descend; another day had come and gone.

The warmth of summer was weakening and giving way to the decay of fall, and the cold chatter of leaves in the wind.

She often times found herself like this; paralyzed in memory, staring past the scenery, and into another life unfamiliar. She had decided after John had died not to give in to such thoughts, for fear they would consume her. She imagined her flesh and blood wasting from her bones while her mind found bliss in skipping records. For now she still had uses for her body in the material world, and her blood rippled with the steady quakes of fear, virgin pools waiting to be spilled with revenge.

Alex steadily sharpened the ax, as he watched Marla. It had become his obsession, observing this woman. He noticed everything so intimately, the way her pale skin reddened when she brushed against the tall grass, the gentle whispers from her room at night, and every unconscious movement she made unfurled like choreographed dances.

He wanted to take her, and together, drown in the fire swallowing the expanse between them. He swore he saw it glowing red above the trees, deep in the distance. Love, he thought. What great love he had found beneath such an unclean stone.

She pulled herself from her memories, and turned toward the cottage. Her eyes met Alex’s.

     Do we have enough wood?

     I think so, but I’m going to cut more in case we need it.

     There was frost on my window last night. I’m dreading this coming winter.

     We’ll be okay.

     I know. Thank you.

     For what?

     For staying. You could have easily—

     Listen, you don’t need to thank me anymore. I’ve told you, there was never thought of leaving you.

     I know, but I like to remind you sometimes.

Behind her back, she dug her nails into her scarred hands, and met Alex’s smile with the warmth of her own.

     I guess I’ll go cook your favorite, rabbit stew. Don’t cut wood after dark, you’ll hurt yourself.

     Don’t worry, I’ll be in shortly.

That night Marla woke from a dream, her skin sticky with sweat. The cottage was much warmer than it should have been, Alex made sure of it. She sat up and opened the window above the bed and let the cool air fill her lungs. She looked out over the field and rested her head on the sill to dream. The tall grass was green and sturdy as she cut through, letting her hands tickle the fine edges. It was not daylight or darkness, but the silvery light of a moon too close. She came to a clearing where the grass had been trampled and gnarled.  Her bare feet still felt the warmth of the sun as she moved to the middle. There she saw she was surrounded by Nazis. Their faces were grey and indistinguishable, but she could feel their gaze. They looked not with lust or fury, but with an alien curiosity. She wiped her bloody hands on her lips.

When she woke, her chilled breath puffed like smoke from her mouth. She wanted to warm herself by the fire, but on her way there, she stopped in Alex’s doorway. She watched him sleep, the glow of the fire cutting through her nightgown. She watched and wondered of the possibilities.  In that moment she wanted to give him the comfort he so desired. Who is he but another person full of fear and flaws? She thought. Perhaps his fierce love for her is pure in its intentions? And maybe he hadn’t taken John from her?

She wrestled with these thoughts, contradictory of the revenge fueled passion she chose to embrace. It angered her, her weakness, so lonely. She wished for the judging eyes of a mother to tell her what to do.

Balled up in front of the fire, aching for forgetful sleep, she was just a woman, lost, alone, and afraid. Alex coughed in the other room. He was just a man, lost, alone, and afraid, and John was dead. …John was dead.

Marla entered the room and shielded her eyes from the shine of the sun. The air was thick and humid, and smelled of sweat and restlessness. John had not moved from where she left him. He was shriveled up on his side with his back to the door, uninviting. She hesitated before sitting on the edge of the bed and placing her hand on his shoulder. He took a deep breath with her touch and opened his eyes, but would not look at her.

     How are you feeling?

He did not respond, he stared through the wall in front of him into emptiness.

     It’s so warm in here. Do you want to go to the creek with me? I want to cool off before dinner.

     Alex is going into the woods tomorrow. He asked me if I’d go with him.

     Are you going?

     Yes.

     Well that’s good. It will get you out of bed.

John’s eyes remained as steady and dead as stone. Marla grew anxious when he was like that. He was present to her in body only. She reached out and brushed the hair from his forehead, and kissed him.

     Do you remember the day we ran away together? It was right after we met. I didn’t even know your last name, but you came and swept me from the flower shop and led me all throughout Paris. My hand never left yours as you took me from one sight to the next. We did all the things I dreamt of doing in Paris when I was young. We were romantics, me the silly village girl, and you the clever city boy. And at the end of the day, when you brought me back, just as the street lamps were flickering on, you kissed me for the first time. Do you remember?

     No, I don’t remember. I’m so sorry.

     It’s okay, it’s just a story I imagined. But we had days like that. We had so many days like that once.

He rolled over to face her finally. His green eyes clouded with the careless fingerprints of war.

     I know about those days. I can still feel them somewhere. Tomorrow I’ll remember them, when I’m feeling better.

She lied down with him, and rested her head on his shoulder to watch the sun slowly fall.

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