"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


While I'm Away

While I'm Away

“I told you to cut them, Irwin,” said Polly Jean. 

Her voice was filled with that tender exasperation reserved only for husbands who’ve botched their wives’ instructions about the roses.

“They look fine to me,” replied Irwin.  

To Irwin on that summer February morning, the garden seemed more of a paradise than ever. It was a project that Polly Jean had begun realizing just after she and Irwin were married. Everything that grew there was a living memory — the blushing, pink Azaleas (planted just after she and Irwin moved into the house in Emmarentia), the quiet blue hydrangeas (just after her first miscarriage), the ghost white hydrangeas (that she’d stand and get lost in), and the thicket of wild violets (that she planted when Harry was born), still spreading along the garden floor some thirty-three years later.  

Towering over it all was an enormous Jacaranda tree, now forty feet high, but a mere stick when Polly Jean first brought it home and dug it into the soil. Now, it seemed to hang over their histories like an immovable wedding veil; a lilac force field of some greater creation, promising nothing truly bad could ever happen to them.

Polly Jean presided over her garden with her hand over her mouth and her eyes glittering with horror and mirth. Irwin observed her with an immense pleasure; an erotic spirituality that only a man of seventy-three could appreciate.

“Really, Irwin, I wish you’d stop smirking. I was away for one week, and now look at this place!” cried Polly Jean.

She reached into a bushel of English Roses with a pair of clippers. Polly Jean’s paper white hands were just beginning to show their age, the skin gathering in pockets of wrinkles around the joints. She pulled apart the rose stems with no regard for the thorns that scraped against her delicate arms. Polly Jean leaned into her flowers, her sun hat flopping over her eyes as she murmured half to Irwin and half to herself, “You see? You have to cut, cut cut.”

Eleven days later, Irwin repeated her words to himself like a centring prayer. He kneeled, immobilized over the bathtub that was painted in Polly Jean’s scarlet blood. It was exactly the colour he would’ve imagined it, if he’d ever imagined it. Irwin clutched his glittering bone saw, reminding himself: cut, cut, cut.

The next morning, Irwin pulled apart the curtains in every room. The night was barely clinging to the dawn.  His heart beat like an old dog’s - slow, reliable and good in a crisis. It was the way Polly Jean had always seen him, and still the way she would be seeing him now, if only she wasn’t in pieces, (head, hands, and still-wet heart) wrapped in brown paper and packed into her favourite suitcase.

Irwin walked down the red dust roads of suburban Johannesburg, dragging the suitcase behind him. The sun was still harmless, but Irwin knew that in a few hours, it would start brooding and fussing and suckling the air until all that remained was Hell. He set out on foot for the Emmarentia Dam, where he and Polly Jean had walked in the silence of decades each weekend. And here they were, walking again. 

Irwin clutched the handle of the suitcase as if it was Polly Jean’s hand on the day they were married, on the day their son, Harry, was born, on the day the doctor looked clinically at them and said the word “incurable” with the force of an atom bomb

Irwin pulled the brim of Polly Jean’s sun hat down over his brow. Even through the shadows that were building around his head, he could still smell the flowers that lingered in her hair. He saw her eyes, heard her voice cooing, “Irwin, have I ever told you why I so love the morning?”

For the thirty-three years that they were married, Irwin rose from an empty bed. He would pull on his pants and button his shirt, and find Polly Jean in the garden, sometimes tending the snapdragons, sometimes scooping up the pomegranate guts splattered on the cobble stone, her hands shiny and red. 

One morning when Harry was a boy, Irwin found Polly Jean lying in the grass, her eyes wet, a dragonfly crawling over the honey blonde hair that spread ‘round her head like a crown.  

“Harry needs his breakfast,” said Irwin gently.

“Then he should have it,” Polly Jean replied. 

Irwin was, for a moment, troubled by his wife’s distance from their son. But then, he thought, Polly Jean had her moods, and he could feed the boy, and their happy little lives would continue, nonetheless.

Irwin stood over his wife and the little red mites crawling up her arms. He looked down at Polly Jean as if he was an astronaut and his wife was the Earth, swirling and getting smaller against the infinite.

“Gone,” thought Irwin as he knelt along the clay shoreline of the Emmarentia dam, pushing together mounds of soil over Polly Jean’s disembodied hands. He pictured them, white as lilies in the sun, then veered his mind sharply away from the thought of them turning grey, then blue, then soil black under the sunless earth. 

The scent of gardenias crept along the ground, reaching Irwin. He breathed them in with relief. There was a clear, crystalline mist that made the day seem innocent, despite everything. Despite what was left to do. 

During the first spring since the cancer, or, as Polly Jean called it, The Last Spring, she and Irwin walked almost daily through the rose garden that flanked the dam. The trees were just coming into themselves, plush with blossoms that were white and pink as cotton candy. The last failing breaths of winter blew through the air, and the flowers retaliated with exquisitely confident perfumes. 

During one such walk, Polly Jean dropped Irwin’s hand and stopped dead. She inhaled deeply, so deeply it was as if she was trying to take in the entire world; as if the entire world could keep her alive.

“Irwin,” she said with a spark of panic, and then trailed off. Irwin waited for her to finish her thought. He would’ve waited forever.

“When I’m here, and the world is exactly like this, I’m not afraid to die.”

Irwin took her hand in his again. They carried on, and he said, as calm and as sure as concrete, 

“You’re not going to die.”  

The sun was burning white over the dam. The willow trees sagged towards Irwin as he moved through them, feeling that he was one of them.  The work of burying Polly Jean’s head had been the most difficult. He’d done it with haste and panic and revulsion, all the while trying not to picture her grey eyes, but all the while, picturing them yet. When the terrible work was complete, Irwin turned and looked behind him at the corridor of jacarandas adorning the sky. The breeze sprinkled lilac blossoms into the air.  Irwin brushed a petal from the brim of his hat. It fell to the ground, disappearing among the thousands of fallen flowers. `

                                                                        

Not long before the end, Irwin woke up and couldn’t find Polly Jean in the garden. He searched the house, then phoned Harry, who coldly assured him, “Mother hasn’t been here in months.”

When Polly Jean finally called, it was from St. James, the small coastal town in Cape Town where Polly Jean grew up. 

“I just had to see it once more,” she said, in a voice both tiny and revivified. 

Irwin knew “it” was really a man Polly Jean had known before Harry was born. She had always denied they were lovers, and Irwin never pressed her to confess. He simply opened the mailbox once in a while, and knew that someone else loved Polly Jean. 

“Well,” said Irwin, full of the good humour that helped him both love and survive Polly Jean, “make sure you send me a postcard.”

“Irwin, before you hang up, I need to tell you something.”

At the seriousness in Polly Jean’s voice, Irwin’s mouth dried in an instant. His mind raced with the wild and terrible possibilities of what she might say: that she was staying in Cape Town. That she was happier there. That Harry’s dark, semitic features could be explained. That the coming of death meant that Polly Jean had no more use for her garden, for their little house on Mazoe Road, or for Irwin O’Day himself.  

“What is it, dear?” asked Irwin.

“Please don’t forget to trim and water the roses while I’m away.”

Then Irwin and Polly Jean discussed the practicalities of the next few weeks: Who would fetch her from the airport, how much water, exactly, did the garden need, and what a terrible thing it would be if Polly Jean’s roses died .

 

  Irwin walked through a leafy archway and into the rose garden, still dragging the suitcase behind him, his stomach twisting at its lightness. Irwin barely noticed the roses that surrounded him — their neon yellows, brazen reds and insistent pinks, all climbing over each other, screaming and craning up towards Heaven and Polly Jean.

Suddenly, the memory of her blood made Irwin feel dizzy. He staggered over to a nearby bench. By now, the sun was scorching and merciless. Irwin reached into his pocket, unfolding a letter written in elegant blue script.  He read it once more:

My Dear Irwin,

When you read this, I will be gone. Do you remember all of our walks through the dam — each one among hundreds? Do you remember the Last Spring, when you promised me I’d live forever? It gives me great peace to know that because I’ve died, and because of you, some cell of me, some particle, will always be alive in these sweet smells of spring in the place we so loved.

On the reverse of this page is a list of instructions concerning my “final arrangements.” After you carry them out, I should like you to finally be free of me. Nothing was ever too much for you, my darling. 

Love,

Your Polly Jean.

“Nothing is ever too much for you,” Polly Jean said to Irwin through a lifetime of love and pain and death. Now here Irwin was at the end of her, with Polly Jean’s still-wet heart resting in his hands. He squeezed it gently, imagined it beating in Polly Jean’s chest, imagined her lips still moving, her hands in the thicket of his beard, in the thickets of her garden.  Then he could hear her voice saying, “My darling,” and the dam stopped spinning, and Irwin O’Day looked at the roses and said, “you look fine to me.”


Nikki Saltz is a South African writer who now resides in Toronto, Canada. She was the recipient of the Ontario Book Publisher's Organization's 2018 Emerging Writer's prize, and her short story, Louise Tomorrow, appeared in their 2018 anthology. She is working on her first short story collection, funded by the Ontario and Toronto Arts Councils, and is currently the screenwriter in residence at the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF)

Cover photo by Abdul Gani on Unsplash

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