Few would choose the night of a snow-ish storm to plant seeds at their kitchen table, but, for this reluctant widower, the weather rarely guides his actions. This may appear odd, given the time he spends attempting to garden even in the thick of winter. It makes even less sense if you know how much the widower dislikes gardening and would much rather be listening to a true crime podcast while eating freezer entrees from Foodland. But it will make complete sense once you understand how much he loves his wife.
Instead of a true crime podcast, Linus Claremont listens to the CBC as his wife Eleanor always did when gardening—or preparing for gardening—in the middle of the winter. The young British reporter, the same woman who faithfully reports on the happenings of Southeast Asia every Thursday evening, relays the latest updates on the possible relocation of Indonesia’s capital.
“Can you believe that, Ellie?” He throws this comment over his shoulder, in the direction of their sink—a sink surrounded by a mountain of dishes. Water waits to engulf them, exactly like the Indian Ocean to Jakarta. He doesn’t expect a response.
She was horrible at doing the dishes. Always became distracted by the news. He’s not much better, but now the porcelain mountain offers another element of her presence. Something more he can’t let go of.
A layer of pellets has accumulated along the sill of his window, much larger than the seeds he now attempts to pinch out of a small mason jar. Seeds that Linus could swear are smaller than the ones he seeded last year, but many things are ravaging his memories and teasing his santé mentale these days. Even the pellets at the window seem to taunt his efforts. Tat-a-tat tat. Give it a rest. Tat-a-tat. Wait a few more weeks. Let it snow. Tata tat. Let it snow. Tata tat.
But graupel doesn’t talk and, despite his being eighty-five years old, Linus is mostly aware of this. Plus, these seeds will stay inside for the next six to eight weeks, according to the calendar. Her calendar. The Farmer’s Almanac calendar that she’d exclusively reserved for gardening and canning. And, like every other year, if he follows her notes on the calendar, he will succeed, as Eleanor always did. And this brings him a strange but necessary hope. One that Linus can’t live without.
A great gust of pellets hits the window near his right ear. His aided ear. Feedback whistles through his middle ear, and his thumb and pointer finger flinches, tipping the glass jar and scattering pepper seeds across the kitchen table and onto the floor.
If Eleanor had been here, he might have sworn, or thrown his hearing aid across their kitchen. But it’s been over thirty years now, and anger has a funny way of diffusing when no one is around to see it. Instead, Linus pumps his fingers in and out of a fist and waits for the shaking to return to his normal standing tremor.
He twists the hearing aid out of his ear and attempts to lower the volume. It doesn’t fit properly. Hasn’t in years, but he’ll never acknowledge this to anyone. That would require a trip to the audiologist. A trip he would refuse to take, like any other trip that would force him to leave their home. He refits the mold to his outer canal, the sound of the storm and the BBC reporter, unfortunately, louder as she finishes her report. But he has more important things to meddle with than the knob in his ear.
The pad of his callused pointer finger barely registers the small flat seed as he slides it off the table and into his waiting palm. A familiar Beatles song plays, and the lyrics seem to tease him, just as the pellets had done moments ago. With the seed now between his fingers, he doesn’t dare chance losing it to adjust the volume of his hearing aid again. He squints into the awaiting soil cells through the lower portion of his glasses. The grids of earth offer no help as to which ones still lay empty.
Linus loves almost every song by the Beatles, but not this one. Not now. He doesn’t need help, no matter how many times his daughter insists otherwise. With this task or any other. He simply needs to remember where he left off.
The calendar is tacked to the side panel of the kitchen pantry. He stares at his wife’s gentle, coiling script, as if waiting for Eleanor to tell him which seeding cells still need their pebbles of life. But only the briefest of instructions are there in faded blue ink for the third Thursday in March. Poivrons à l’intérieur. Pepper seeds, indoors.
It is hard for Linus to consider his present truth, but he must. This isn’t working anymore. Seeding. Recreating. Remembering. Life.
Closing his eyes, Linus turns his fist and hovers it over the tiny black cells, willing Eleanor’s delicate hand to guide him. For her fingers to peel back his own clumsy carrot-fingers over the empty slot. To allow him to seed. To recreate. To continue living.
But beyond the unpredictable gusts of soft hail, he is alone with his seeds and the Beatles.
He offers a silent apology to the boys from Liverpool. It’s not their fault that he’s in a sour mood this evening. They are, on most days, one of his lifelines.
Three things bring Eleanor back to him: listening to her favourite album, Abbey Road, sketching her portrait—which he can now do in forty-two seconds—and growing her garden every year without fail. This will be his thirty-second year of seeding, planting, harvesting, and preserving her legacy.
They say people fade from memory after this many years, but, for Linus, when he does these things, Eleanor doesn’t age one day or fade one line. He can feel her when he dances to “Golden Slumbers”, still smell her when the first sweet peas uncurl each spring, and taste her lips when he bites into toast caressed with her raspberry jam. He’s not senile, as some like to imply, but he can sometimes hear her as well. The timbre of her voice isn’t as clear, and neither are her responses to his daily conundrums. He knows Eleanor is gone and that all the sketches in the world and attempts at jam won’t bring her back. That trying to keep her alive in this home is futile, but, damn it, he doesn’t plan to stop trying.
His knuckles have gone white, and the lyrics of “Help” will not relent. Nor will the pelting snow, or the calendar that reminds him he will need to do this again tomorrow, but with gourds and cauliflower, his least favorite vegetables.
And then, what sounds like a thousand pellets bombard Linus’s kitchen window all at once. His eyes flash wide, only to be blinded by a bright light and Eleanor’s voice fighting hard against the Beatles.
Linus! My garden!
In all his years of keeping her lines, curves, and passions present, he willed her voice not to fade, and here it is. In this moment when the wind rages and the song argues, there she is. So close and real. And loud. So loud and real that the need to reach his Ellie supersedes any rational thinking. The presence of a front door is forgotten. Even the side door is erased from memory. Instead, he pounds on the window, fighting with the latch that hasn’t been released since October.
As his panicked fingers quarrel, white light spreads across the ice-crusted pane. In a more tempered state, Linus might have noticed two white lights, but, when you are eighty-five and you have heard your long-lost wife speak, you are thinking about different lights. The light. And this light leaves Linus incapable of movement. He is stricken with the possibility that this could be his end.
Images of Eleanor flood his memory. He remembers his life with her in flashes from the disco ball blinding their first dance, the matrimonial fireflies guiding them up their flagstone path to the last day. The day of the fire.
A new set of ravaged memories bombard him from his time on the police force. A blur of rotating beacons on the light bars of racing cruisers, perpetrators drowned in the accusing glow. His desk lamp illuminating sketches of missing people. Some never found. One, drawn over and over again, in less than forty-five seconds, still never found.
The light grows to include a full array of colours, like a fractured spectrum; the many shades of his relationship with his daughter appear. He considers how, despite living one street over, they only see each other in the pew on Sunday. The memory lingers here, within stained glass. He expects judgment for why on Sundays, of all the days, he pretends to be a family. It burns his insides. A turbulence of regret and guilt rises from his stomach but then stops.
The orb separates into two distinct entities and retreats.
“No.” Linus finds his voice, small, like a young boy at first. “No!” He finds it again, louder this time, as though begging for the fading lights to return, to provide him with mercy.
He blinks long and hard through the frosted glass, waiting for the pounding in his heart to slow, for the air to find room in his aching chest. He swipes a hand to clear the perspiration of his breath from the window and now, with a clearer view and understanding of his present reality, his protests change from that of a young boy to those of a man who wishes he could reverse time. The no’s create a chorus from thirty-two years without resolution. To unanswered questions about a fire that forced him to rebuild her seed house. That left him alone in this kitchen.
Outside his window there is no fire, but, as Linus’s eyes adjust to the dark, a comparative level of destruction becomes visible.
With only the most primal impulses guiding him, Linus scrambles for the door, treading sock-footed and coatless into the elements. Within a few strides, freezing slush soaks through his wool socks, and the ice pellets find every hole within his shrunken wool cardigan. None of this matters to Linus because, not only is he losing hope of reuniting with his Ellie tonight, he has lost one of his three ways of keeping her alive. Her favorite place in this world—the seed house, where she kept her growing collection, the fruit of her labour, and the hope for spring—is gone. Destroyed by the lights.
With soaked feet and heaving shoulders, he struggles to grasp the enormity of the carnage. A car has left nothing but tracks, wreckage, and a fresh fire in his lungs.