By Patrick Falconi
Dapples of yellow light floated over the gray, wet surface like iridescent wrinkles on an old, embalmed corpse. The basement of the Southern Baptist church was cold and rainwater had probably been flooding it since the beginning of the storm. I leaned forward, submerged my hands in the cold water and rubbed my palms together. The dark soil didn’t wash off; it filled the cracks of my dry skin like tar. I shook my hands in the damp air and tried drying them on my wet shirt. I gazed at my bleeding fingernails under the pale florescent light and could smell the cemetery between my swollen knuckles. I heard the police inspector’s faint voice through the wooden door; it sounded thin but persisted into the flooded room like a dog whistle. I gazed down at my shapeless reflection and watched pools of gray water swell into the corners of the room.
The police inspector dressed casually, he wore a dark blazer, a brown turtleneck shirt, and faded blue jeans. His blond hair was short and cropped tightly to the sides of his round head. He had a long, thin nose and high cheekbones that made his profile look old and sinister. I was certain he was German until he introduced himself as Edgardo Goobis; “probably a Spaniard,” I thought.
The inspector walked into the room and sloshed toward me carrying an old wooden chair, a cigarette was glued to his bottom lip. Flipping the chair around, the inspector sat down and gazed at my wet face. I strained my eyes trying to keep them locked on his head but I could feel them slowly drift apart. Since childhood, my eyes would stray in opposite directions like the erratic, nimble feelers of a kitchen insect. Everything around me would calmly merge into a throbbing haze of saturated color then float away in every direction. I became accustomed to a life of intermittent distortion and a desire to share my impressions among people increased as I grew older. I tried establishing myself in various social circles at school, for instance, but because of my wandering eyes, I acquired the repellent nickname of roach boy.
“Have you been drinking?” asked the inspector, in a thick, whistled accent. I allowed my eyes to drift freely and they settled on a strip of florescent light bulbs above his head.
“Not a drop,” I said. I scratched the nape of my neck, reached into my jacket and pulled out a crumpled cigarette. The matches were damp and took some effort to light.
“Did you … know the deceased?” he asked, stammering through his accent. The inspector crossed his legs, squeezed water from the cuff of his jeans and gazed at me with a sideways glance; a thin stream of blue smoke crept out of his nostrils. I didn’t trust him; his accent was abrasive and he seemed capable of having me flogged. He shook water off his fingers, reached into his pocket, and removed a wet piece of paper from his blazer. As he gently unfolded the delicate note, black ink streaked across the yellow paper like broken capillaries under thin, jaundiced skin. As he regarded the note under the overhead light I immediately recognized the bleeding handwriting as Abigail’s. I took a drag of my cigarette; the damp tobacco made the smoke taste bitter. I leaned over and dropped it in a cascade of water rising up behind my boot heel. I lifted my foot and watched the cigarette float toward the chalkboard at the far end of the room.
“This was found at the grave,” he said. “Read it to me.”
The inspector handed me the note. I smoothed the piece of paper against my knee, pushing water out toward the edges.
“I can’t,” I said. “The words aren’t legible.”
The inspector leaned forward, gently peeled the wet paper off my knee like a dry, brittle scab and cradled it in the palm of his hand. He reached into another pocket for his reading glasses and rested them on the tip of his nose. He took a drag, cleared his throat, and began reading:
“Yavenka’s plot is unmarked, it’s under a tall crepe myrtle bordered by …’ he paused, gazed at my expression over his reading glasses, and then continued: “… bordered by a field of primrose at the edge of the cemetery.” He slapped the note onto my leg and said it was signed by Abigail. Wiping sweat off his eyelid, the inspector leaned back in his chair. “What happened to Yavenka?” he asked, fighting to conceal a virulent smirk.
I rubbed life back into my eyes with the palms of my soiled hands and asked the inspector for a cigarette. He stretched out his right arm and offered me the one he was already smoking. I took a drag, exhaled, and leaned back into my chair.
“Give me a moment,” I said. I took another drag then asked for more time. The inspector stood up, waded toward the door and told me I had five minutes. I closed my eyes, took a deep drag, and fell into a reverie.
Yavenka was a Russian peasant born in Moscow and raised near the Volga River in Saratov. He immigrated to America several years before the revolution and worked as a gardener at Abigail’s nursery. He was a cantankerous, spiteful old man driven by a feeble envy to acquire his own business and compete against Abigail’s. He never drank and spent the majority of his free time studying about flowers and native deciduous trees of Virginia. He was a competitive man by nature; I once caught him urinating over a batch of purple salvia he thought would never bloom under full sun. Ultimately, Yavenka wasn’t able to save the capital needed for a nursery, aged prematurely then developed severely painful sciatica. He resigned himself to a life of elderly toil in America and began treating me as though I was directly responsible for blighting his dreams.
The old Russian never directly teased me about my eyes or referred to me by an epithet, but when he did say something provocative, it was normally veiled behind nettles of sarcasm. One afternoon, for example, as I returned to the nursery after delivering a cartful of marigolds to the cemetery, I heard Yavenka whisper something in Russian. I looked around and caught his dry, seething gaze hovering above the caressing yellow grin of white fleabane; I asked him what he said. Leaning over the flowers, Yavenka opened his dry mouth, drew a short breath, and polluted the fragrant air with a gray mist of decay; words squeezed through his pitted teeth like a wet, gurgled hiss. Although I didn’t understand his English entirely, I was able to make out his connection to some famous Russian monk who could easily cure my wandering gaze with a fatal bleeding.
I first met Abigail McGintly after I left the flower stand at the farmers market one afternoon three years ago. My mother sent me there for an arrangement of cut flowers she needed for the taxidermist’s funeral. The florist had sold her last bouquet and suggested I try Abigail’s nursery in Withers Larue.
Located near a small railroad town in Virginia’s whiskey belt, Withers Larue was a two-mile walk from the market. I followed the florist’s directions and ended up lost. As I walked on the shoulder of Route 9, I noticed blue thunderclouds forming in the gray, humid sky. Far off in the horizon, yellow veins of electricity shot through the air and flashed over the Shenandoah River like a giant fishing net; I abandoned the journey and decided to take a shortcut home. I crossed over the highway and cut through a meadow I suspected would lead out to the tracks.
Beside a row of white dogwood trees, a beautiful young woman was harvesting yellow, orange, and red marigolds. She packed them tightly onto a large wooden cart harnessed to a restless buckskin pony. From a distance, the flowers looked morose; their bright Halloween colors merged together like layers of melted taffy. As I approached the pony, I noticed a small greenhouse in the distance. An elderly man opened the door and hobbled toward a thick quilt of red phlox; he pulled a stiff watering hose behind him. Realizing where I was, I asked the woman for flowers suitable for a funeral. She offered to give me a bouquet of marigolds if I could help lead her pony to the greenhouse. The woman had long red hair, pale blue eyes, and bright red lips that dimpled the corners of her small mouth. She extended her arm, shook my hand, and introduced herself as Abigail; when she noticed my eyes wandering in opposite directions, she turned away, pointed toward the greenhouse, and skillfully changed the subject onto Yavenka, who was struggling to water purple tufts of lantana. I offered Abigail my help and soon found myself employed at her nursery.
Cold drops of water fell on my head and brought my attention back to the flooded basement. I gazed at the ceiling; brown water leaked onto the florescent lights and slowly dripped onto the wet floor. It sounded thin and produced a mournful chorus that echoed eerily throughout the damp air. I took my last drag and flicked the cigarette someplace between the vestment closet and an old wooden bookcase. The pale orange glow of the coal fizzled out and reminded me of the gentle, yellow flicker of a devotional candle. I stood up, walked to the other side of the room, leaned against the cold, cracked basement wall, and thought about Yavenka.
One hot afternoon about two months ago, I discovered Yavenka’s dehydrated body face-down in the smoldering flower mulch several hundred yards from the greenhouse. I flipped Yavenka over and realized he was dead; his purple tongue was glued against his dry, bloated cheek. The impression was ghastly; the poor old Russian appeared to have died using his tongue as a dousing rod.
During this time, Withers Larue Baptist Church suspended their contract with Abigail’s nursery because her marigolds mysteriously stopped growing. She tried encouraging the church to use fleabane for the cemetery, but even at a reduced price, the option was dismissed on account of fleabane having a cynical personality. It was a perplexing situation for the nursery; every other annual and perennial grew vibrantly on Abigail’s meadow except the creepy marigolds. Eventually, the Reverend M. Samuel Esche paid Abigail a visit. He blessed her meadow, the greenhouse, and even prayed over the mulch pile where the old Russian died of thirst.
Carefully acknowledging the importance of loyalty and tradition steeped in Northern Virginia history, the Reverend regretfully announced the cemetery’s decision to support his sister-in-law’s nursery in Harpers Ferry. As the Reverend waved goodbye, I walked him down the gravel driveway. We stopped above the culvert; he gave me a hug and told me about a job opening at the nursery in West Virginia.
Because Yavenka was buried on a weekday, I remained at the nursery while Abigail attended his funeral at Withers Larue Cemetery. As I planted wild flower seeds for English container gardens, I noticed a florescent glow at the base of an old oak tree. From a distance, the tiny ember flickered through tall blades of grass like a trapped lighting bug; I stood up and walked over to it. Just over an inch tall, and growing over a decaying field mouse, a bright yellow marigold smiled arrogantly above the rotting carcass.
By the time Abigail arrived from the funeral, a cool purple dusk settled over Withers Larue like a soft canopy of woven lilac; black rainclouds formed in the horizon. A gentle breeze blew in from the east and scattered tiny insects over the green meadow like seeds from silver dandelions. We walked past the flowerbeds and approached the old oak tree where the yellow marigold bloomed from the dead mouse. She kneeled down beside the tree, gently picked the flower off the decaying rodent, and came up with a plan.
Abigail’s idea of stealing the old Russian from his grave, and using his decomposing body as fertilizer, was a concept that didn’t exactly trouble me. I wasn’t particularly fond of Yavenka anyway, so rendering his body back into the soil to help grow the marigolds seemed like an appropriate decision from every angle. The important thing to remember was that Abigail needed my help, and that’s what I tried focusing on. I loaded the wooden cart with a pickaxe and shovel, harnessed it to Abigail’s pony, and headed out to the cemetery before it started raining.
Gray drops of water hammered the window in the church basement like pellets of cold lead. A windowpane slipped from the grooves of a fractured mullion and shattered against the wet concrete floor. I heard Abigail’s pony stomp its hoofs against the cobblestones beside the churchyard as the Reverend’s raspy voice called out to the inspector. I stood up and walked over to the wooden desk leaning against the wall in the corner of the basement. I set the desk upright and pulled it under the broken window beside the rusted pencil sharpener. I climbed onto the desk, stretched up to the window and gazed outside.
Yavenka’s body was lying in the cart as I had left him; his head was propped up against a stack of wet boards and leaned slightly to the left. The skin under his gray eyes had already turned black and his prominent nose had melted between his brittle cheeks and turned blue. His dry mouth was hanging open, and I noticed he was missing a few more teeth. The restless pony whinnied then lunged forward, causing Yavenka’s body to knock awkwardly against the wooden cart. The inspector walked past the window, climbed up the stairs and opened the wooden doors to the church as Reverend Esche followed quickly behind him.
Patrick earned an MFA in Cinematography from the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles, CA. He occasionally works as a grip/electric in film production and spends the majority of his free time writing. Two of his recent short stories, “Apropos of R. Brinkley Peabody”, and “Freight” have been published in the literary journals A Clean, Well-lighted Place and Onetitle Magazine, respectively.