Read Green Angel Online

Authors: Alice Hoffman

Tags: #Nature & the Natural World, #Social Issues, #Gardening, #Juvenile Fiction, #General, #Grief, #Family & Relationships, #Grief in adolescence, #Self-Help, #Death; Grief; Bereavement, #Emotions & Feelings, #Fiction, #Death & Dying

Green Angel

BOOK: Green Angel
11.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Green Angel Heart I once believed that life was a gift. I thought whatever I wanted I would someday possess. Is that greed, or only youth? Is it hope or stupidity? As far as I was concerned the future was a book I could write to suit myself, chapter after chapter of good fortune. All was right with the world, and my place in it was assured, or so I thought then. I had no idea that all stories unfold like white flowers, petal by petal, each in its own time and season, This is how it happened dependent on circumstance and fate. The future is something no one can foretell. My family had always lived on the ndgetop above the village in a county where days were sunny and warm. At twilight, dusk wove across the meadows like a dream of the next day to come. People said we were blessed, and maybe that was true. My father was honest and strong. My mother collected blue jay feathers, preferring them to her pearls. My little sister, Aurora, was as wild as she was beautiful. Aurora could climb a tree in the blink of an eye. She could disappear into the woods like moonlight. She could dance for hours and never tire. I was the least among them, nothing special, just a girl. I was a moody, dark weed; still, they called me Green because of my talents in the garden. My mother was the one who taught me everything I knew to bury old boots beneath peach trees to ensure they'll bear the sweetest fruit, to douse roses with vinegar-water to chase away beetles, to plant when the moon wanes and harvest when it is on the rise. My sister, Aurora, could never sit still and pay attention. She chased after frogs, she trailed her prettiest dresses through the mud, she stole apples from our neighbor's orchard, she laughed so hard whenever her snappy little terrier, Onion, danced on his hind legs, we thought she'd never come to her senses. Aurora didn't listen to a word my mother said. We all knew she couldn't stay in one place any longer than moonlight could. Every time she ran through the garden the warblers and sparrows would follow her. Bees would drink the sweat from her skin and never once sting. My mother laughed and said the honey in our hives would taste especially wild and sweet. At night, Aurora and I shared a room. Aurora slept without blankets or pillows, her pale hair streaming. Once or twice I had awoken to spy her curled up on the floor with her little dog. As she dreamed, white moths hovered above her, more drawn to her than they were to the moon or to the lantern my father kept on the porch, a beacon that signaled to anyone who might lose his way in the woods. Aurora was made out of laughter and moonlight, but I was nothing like that. Unlike my fearless sister, I was afraid of blackbirds and thunder. I couldn't get a good night's sleep unless I had three feather pillows under my head and two down quilts covering me. But I was the one who could sit in the garden for hours, unmoving, as I watched seedlings unfold. I was Green, with my long, dark hair and my endless patience. A weed who grew too tall. I was Green, who never smiled at anyone, who preferred roses and asparagus to people. I was shy and ill at ease, uncomfortable with girls my own age, unwilling to talk to the boys at school. I wasn't good company, that was true, and people avoided me, but that was all right. I was too busy dreaming. My head was in the clouds even on the days we went into town. I didn't notice when people said hello to me. I was too busy thinking about the future to come. When my mother sent us to do her shopping, I was too timid to enter the market and sent my sister in my place. Aurora laughed at how fainthearted I was. They won't bite you, she said. All the same, I kept my distance. I didn't mind if the storekeepers favored my sister. They gave her sweets, mints and sugared almonds, which she would share evenly, fifty-fifty. Aurora always remembered me. I was a reflection of what she was, a dark pond to mirror her moonlight. I hugged her, grateful that she didn't notice I was less than she was. I ran home with her through the woods even though she was faster and more graceful than I would ever be. I didn't care who preferred my good-natured sister. I was Green, who was more comfortable in shadows. Green, who faded in the light of my sister. How could I not defer to her? The moon itself paled compared to her. Even the white moths would rather circle around her than fly into the sky up above. But I knew how to listen. I was the one who paid attention to the lessons my mother taught us. I learned that the roots of the foxglove were poisonous, that verbena could quiet headaches, that quince could be boiled into a sticky, delicious jam. In time, I knew more than my mother. Soon, she began to turn to me for advice. When should we harvest? When should we sow? What would do best in the patch of sunlight beside the gate? I could whisper to the old, twisted wisteria and it would turn green at my urging. I could encourage the sweet peas to blossom with one word. Let Aurora smile at the shopkeepers and wave to the boys in the school yard. My dreams were of night-blooming flowers, white on the outside, but green as my heart on the inside, green as my garden grew. I never complained when people didn't notice me. I was certain my time would come soon enough. There was dirt under my fingernails and I was too shy to speak, but on my next birthday I would turn sixteen. Everything would change then. I would cast away my fears and step into my future. I would comb the tangles from my hair and wash the dirt away. When I walked through town, people would whisper, Is that Green? And I would say, Yes it's me, I've been here all along, but you've been too blind to see. I would have gone with my family on the day that it happened, but someone had to stay home and pull weeds. Someone had to coax the tomatoes into turning red and persuade the squash blossoms to bloom, and that person was me. We lived within sight of the city, which glowed silver at night and shone like gold in the afternoon. Every week we brought our vegetables across the river to sell to city people who couldn't get enough of our peas and lettuce and beans. Every week we crossed the bridge, and as we did I held my breath. I could feel happiness then. I lived for those trips to the city. On the weeks I couldn't go, I pouted for hours. The city was my treasure, and I loved everything about it: the shops on the avenues, the books in the stalls, the chocolates weighed and measured by vendors in the streets. No one in the city cared if your hair was long and tangled, or if there was dirt under your fingernails. No one cared if you whispered a greeting to the linden trees that circled the park where we set up our stand. You could be who you wanted to be in the city. You could be whoever you were deep inside. It was like a garden of people, the only place where I didn't feel alone in a crowd. Naturally, I wanted to go that day. It was my turn. But Aurora was still too young to stay by herself. And on this trip my father was needed to carry the heavy crates, wooden boxes overflowing from the best harvest we'd had in years. As for my mother, she was the one who drew the customers, like the white moths who were entranced by Aurora. People on the street couldn't resist my mother's sweet voice, her gentle hands, her long, black hair, raven-colored, like mine. It was clear she couldn't stay. It made sense for me to work in the garden, for me to be the one who stayed home, but I was angry all the same. When my family set out to leave, they called good-bye, but I didn't answer. My father whistled a tune, and although the sparrows returned his call I did not. I wouldn't even look at him, even though he was so strong and so kind. I didn't say a word. /'/I bring you something special, Aurora promised. I knew she'd spend all her free time searching for a gift that would please me, a book or a bag of sweets, but I didn't blow her a kiss or wish her well. There will be plenty of times for you to be the one to go, my mother told me. My mother, who was so beautiful, who knew the secrets of the growing season, who always assured me that everyone had her own path, and that mine could be found in the garden. Green, my mother said to me that day, moments before they left for the city, we're leaving you behind because you're the one who's needed most of all. Now that she was standing next to me, I was surprised to find that I was almost as tall as my mother. I felt my love for her in the back of my throat, like a stone, heavy, making it impossible for me to speak. I was almost a woman myself. Too old to admit I was wrong, or so I thought then. Too old to race after my mother when she turned to leave. I had too much pride to say good-bye. I kept my nose in the air and my back to them. I was Green, moody and prideful and angry. I will forever remember that I turned awa. We had so many birds in the trees back then, and each one sang to me while I did my work. I weeded for hours, until my hands ached. Three blue jay feathers drifted down to me. I kept them in my pocket as a gift for my mother, if I decided to forgive her. The day was perfect, cloudless and blue; still I continued to feel sorry for myself. At noon, I decided to take my lunch up to the hillside that overlooked the city. I let my sister's dog, Onion, / 1 O trail after me even though he was an annoying beggar who sometimes growled when he saw me. Today Onion tolerated me because my sister wasn't there, but I knew I was just a substitute for Aurora. It was so warm that I was tired by the time I reached the top of the hill. I can remember the way it felt to breathe in the hot, still air. The stitch in my side. The river in the distance, flat as a mirror. The brambles that had caught in my long, black hair. The blue jays' feathers in my pocket. The chattering of a wood thrush overhead. The dog whining softly. The pulse in my throat at the last moment of the world as it was. People who were close by said they could see people jumping from the buildings, like silver birds, like bright diamonds. The ground shook, people said, but from where I stood all I could see was smoke. I could hear the whoosh of the fire all these miles away, across the river, past the woods. I could hear it as if it were happening inside my own head. I ran down the hill so fast, my clothes were torn to shreds on the brambles. My heart was in my mouth. I thought of my mother, measuring out green beans on a scale with her gentle hands. I thought of my father, who could whistle so many tunes with such sweetness, every variety of bird in our garden would answer. I thought of my sister, whose hair was white as snow, the wild girl who never stopped to listen, always the opposite of me. My sister, who was as familiar as the moon up above, changeable, yes, but always there for me to depend upon. Ashes had swept across the river in black whirlwinds. I ran to escape them, through the yard, into the house. But there was no escape. Embers flew in through the open windows and set the ends of my hair on fire. I wrapped a wet towel around my head. Steam rose in billows from beneath the towel and I smelled like smoke. But worst of all, the embers had flown into my eyes. My eyes burned so badly, I grew dizzy with the pain. My sister's little dog had followed me home. He knew something was wrong and now he barked at the sky, the world, the open door, which I ran to slam shut as I tried to stop the flow of embers. I fastened the bolt, then held my hands over my ears. I didn't want to hear the roar of the fire, so far away, across the river. I wanted silence, peace, blue skies, yesterday. But no matter what, I could hear it still. No matter what, it was burning. I crawled under the dining room table, smelling like smoke and half-blinded by cinders. Little bits of hot embers flew under the door. Onion followed and lay shivering in my lap. I was Green, who was too shy to speak. Green, too angry to say good-bye. Green, who was always waiting for the future, biding her time. Now the future was here and the silver city across the river was on fire and I was hiding under the table, where I stayed until darkness fell. After a while I couldn't hear the fire anymore. The dog whimpered, but I hushed him. I could barely see, but my ears were good. I was the one who could hear the wisteria unfolding. I could hear the sweet peas climbing the fence, the asparagus rising through the soil. Now, I was listening harder than ever. I was waiting for my family to come home. All they had to do was run from the fire. All they needed was to cross the river. Swim, if they must. Crawl, if need be. Find their way home in the dark, in the whirlwinds, in the burning embers. Surely they would appear if only I waited long enough. I was patient Green, after all. Green, who knew how to listen. They were in the city for only a single day. Luck couldn't be as bad as that, could it? Was that the way the future worked? Unknowable, unchangeable, always uncertain. They might have gone to the city the day before or the day after. They might have been stopped by the rising of the drawbridge, by a bee sting, by a sudden storm. They might have not gone at all. But they were there when it happened. And I was not. It was days before I stopped listening for them, mv mother's footsteps, my father's whistle, my sister's wild laughter. I had already decided that I would not allow myself to cry until they came home safely. Tears now would be an admission that they were gone. That I could stop listening. I ' O IT O wasn't ready for that. Every morning I rose from my fitful sleep in the bed I'd made beneath the table expecting to find a trail of my family's footsteps on our dusty floor. I would embrace them and tell them how much I loved them. I would tell them that I'd meant to hug them and kiss them good-bye. Only then would I let the tears wash over my burning eyes. But the days wore on and I heard nothing. Dark, fiery days that were silent as stone. No one came home. No one called out my name. Finally, I went to open the door. I could smell burning metal. I could see sparks in the trees, drifting like fireflies. All of those white pages on which I had planned to write my future were burning around the edges, first red, then black, then blue with flame. My sister's dog refused to step past the threshold. He peed in a corner; he trembled and howled. Poor Onion was missing Aurora. His howls were like mourning cries. I couldn't listen to him, so I went outside and looked up at the black sky. My eyes were still burning, my vision was blurry, but even I could tell there were no stars. Ashes were falling down, a soft black ram. The white moths had dropped from above; they'd scattered like leaves, lining the stone path to our door, gleaming like black opals. I found my way back to the top of the hill. There was only a handful of silver on the other side of the river now. Pale
beacons, pale light. I thought about how time had always stretched out before me, those white empty pages that were mine alone. I thought about how hot it had been at the moment when it happened. How everything around me had been green as far as the eye could see. How the sky had been so cloudless, not even a puff of white. As I walked back to my house in the dark, making my way past the brambles, I noticed that the songbirds who were usually asleep in their nests at this hour were fluttering nervously from tree to tree. It was then I realized it wasn't nighttime at all, but sooty daylight, noon perhaps. The sun had been shadowed by ashes. Now I understood. The world as I knew it was gone forever. What I had thought was the moon up above, as familiar as Aurora's face, was in fact the cloudy sun. On this day, even that circle of light looked so much smaller than it once had, a teardrop in the sky. People in town must have assumed I had perished along with my family. No one came to search for me, and that was just as well. I was glad to be deep in the woods, away from them all. If anyone had tried to rescue me, I would have hidden behind our barn. I would have gone to the darkest part of the woods where the hedges were ten feet tall and the brambles cut the soles of your feet right through your shoes. My grief was cold. It was nothing to share. It was nothing to speak about, nothing to feel. I ate food from the pantry and kicked at the ashes in the garden. But I was lazy and did no work. What was the point? If this was the future, I wasn't certain I wanted to be in it. I started to feel as though I were disappearing. Perhaps I myself was a figment of my own imagination, a storm cloud, a wisp of smoke, a burning ember. I could hear people singing in town; I could hear the church bells ringing. People were going about the business of living as best they could. They could see past today, into tomorrow. But not me. Grief had tied me in knots. There was no gas for the stove, but I didn't cut wood. There was no tap water, but I didn't go to the well. If I could have stopped breathing, I would have. I watched time moving, slowly, like dust motes, like gnats on a summer day, circling close, but never touching me. I was so quiet and the house was so dark that anyone coming to call would have guessed there / o o was no one at home. The looters who came must have assumed they had the freedom to do whatever they pleased. What I had was theirs for the taking. What I had was up for grabs. As it turned out, I didn't hear a thing until they were inside the gate. I was deeply asleep. I had fallen into sleep the way stones fall into a well. The looters had stumbled onto the property in the middle of the night and they didn't even pretend stealth. When I heard them shouting and screaming inside of my dreams, I awoke with a start, a cold band across my chest. The dog was whimpering, but thankfully he didn't bark. Silence was what we needed. Silence was all we had while they stole everything worth taking from the garden. I crawled to the window and saw there were maybe a dozen boys and girls my age. They strode over the delicate seedlings with heavy boots, they pawed through the piles of ash I had planned to rake in their frantic search for anything to eat. They tossed lettuce and cucumbers and squash blossoms into the wheelbarrow they'd stolen from our barn. W7hatever they didn't gorge on was loaded onto the wheelbarrow, till it nearly overflowed. Blackened peppers, singed peas, burnt cauliflower, all of it ripped from the garden. All of it gone before I could count to three. I was quiet because I could tell they'd been drinking. There was the edge of something dark out there in the garden as they tugged and pulled at everything I had worked so hard to grow. Fights broke out. Words were slurred. I recognized a girl named Heather Jones I'd been at school with along with several boys from my classes. I thought perhaps they had also lost their families. I knew Heather's parents worked in the city. I knew they'd never let her run wild with a greedy horde such as this. No one out in the garden looked like themselves in the black ashy night. The boys had painted their faces with mud and berry juice. The girls were all barefoot, in spite of the fact that there were still burning embers at the bottom of the piles of ashes. I had canned food in the pantry, maybe enough to share, but these intruders looked desperate. They wanted to take whatever they saw, they wanted to ruin anything that thwarted them, and the most I could do was crouch by the window and watch them. I was Green, who stayed in the shadows, who shivered and hushed the dog when it whimpered as the looters wrecked fences, tore out stakes, danced in the ashes. Green, who did nothing but shake while the troop in the yard destroyed everything in their path. Perhaps they would have come into the house after that and taken whatever they wanted. Perhaps that was why one of the boys started up the path littered with fallen white moths. But a stone hit that boy square in the back, startling him. He stopped and turned to the woods. Something hooted out there. There was a cackle, human or animal it was impossible to tell. Afraid? several in the crowd called when he noticed the other boy had stopped on the path to our house. More stones fell then, one after another. The cackle rose high, a hen, a ghost, a spirit, the wind. No one knew what it was, but the mob was not about to wait and find out. Heather Jones ran away first, crying that there was even worse luck in store for those who stayed where they were. There should have been strength m numbers, but once the looters stopped wrecking things they were only boys and girls, easily frightened. The rest of the crowd soon followed Heather. Why shouldn't they go? They had already taken everything edible, piled into the wheelbarrow. The'd alread had their fun. When I went out in the morning, there was nothing left but ashes and stones. We had been at the height of our harvest, row after row of new zucchini and purple onions, of peppers that were shiny as frogs and blueberry bushes that were thickening with fruit. That garden was gone. Those days were over. Standing there, I knew my family wasn't coming back. I could feel it the way you can feel the wind across your face. Invisible, but certain. Sure as the blood in vour veins. ; I carried the stones, which had chased the looters from our garden, in all of my pockets. I took them far into the woods, out to where the oldest trees grew. Was it an accident that these stones had fallen, or was it something more? Should I be grateful to someone who had watched over me? I didn't know what to believe. I didn't know if I believed in anything at all. Carefully, I made three piles: one for my mother, one for my father, one for my little sister. Every day I carted stones and every day I added to the growing stacks. Black for my mother, silver for my father, pure white for my sister, the hardest to find. The white stones tossed into our garden were best of all, they were like moonstones, aglow with light. Wherever I went, I carried stones in my pockets, my hands, my boots. It was my duty, my burden, my gift, my soul, the reason I woke in the morning and went to sleep at night. Now I had a purpose, to build the stone stacks. I had known the woods before, now I knew them nearly blind and in the dark. I could find my way by touch. My fingers could tell the difference between east and west. I could rub a clod of dirt under my thumb and gauge how close to the river I was. Before long, I could hold a fallen feather in the palm of my hand and tell whether it belonged to a jay or a sparrow or a dove. When the stacks of stones were tall as the tallest men in the village, I went on to my next task. I began to clean the house. I was determined to get rid of all the ashes. I swept the floor until the straw bristles of the broom were ragged from use. I cleaned until my fingers hurt, and when it was done, when the brass doorknobs were shining and the kettles were scrubbed and the windows were bright with light, I turned on myself. I chopped off all my burnt hair with the scissors my mother had used to trim the roses beside the front door. My hair was nothing more than a black curtain. I didn't need it anymore. My hair reminded me of my mother, it was the only way I was like her, the one feature we shared. I didn't want to be prideful anymore. I wanted to be as hard and brittle as the stones I carted into the woods, stones that could not feel or cry or see. That is what I wished for as I walked past the brambles, as I built the stacks in the woods higher and higher. I wished not to feel anything at all. I had no idea that even in the darkest world, there are some wishes that can come true. Now I understand that those are the ones to think over most carefully. Those are the wishes that can wound just as surely as the sharpest arrow. In no time, what I wished for, I became. Soon enough, I began wearing my father's old black boots and a battered leather jacket that felt like armor. I kept several smooth rocks in my pockets along with a slingshot fashioned out of wood and a belt. I planned to be ready in case the looters came back. I smoked cigarettes I discovered in a drawer. I drank from the bottle of gin kept in the cupboard until my stomach burned. One night when the sky was ash-colored, I went into the ruined garden and clipped the thorns from the bare rosebushes, then sewed them to my clothes, one by one, until my fingers bled. Now I was ready to feel nothing. I was protected from feeling anything at all. All the same, there was less and less food in the pantry and my stomach growled all the time. I hated it for wanting food. I didn't deserve anything, not food to ease my hunger or water to ease my thirst. I should have been on that street weighing vegetables when it happened. Instead, I had been weeding and thinking about my lunch. I was standing under the perfect, blue sky feeling sorry for myself. That was when I took a pin and some black ink. I began to mark my arm. I outlined a raven, and then a bat, then a rose that looked like a flower found at the end of the world. That's who I was now without my mother and my father and my moonlit sister. Blood and ink. Darkness where before there had been patience, black where there'd once been green. The decision of who would stay and who would go to the city was made arbitrarily that day, a single white page of fate that altered our future. I could have insisted. I could have run after them. Then I would have been there to turn to my mother at the instant when it happened. The last thing I saw would have been her black hair and the O fire behind her, red as roses. But I was the one who was still alive, the girl whose eyes burned, whose vision was blurry, whose stomach growled, who wrote upon herself with black ink, as if that could change anything. Once, I had wanted only one thing: to be sixteen. One simple, easy desire. That day wasn't so far away, but it might as well have been forever. I was no more certain that my wish would be granted than I was that daylight would remain, that the birds would sing, that my garden would grow. Soul Wanting only darkness, I began to sleep. I slept longer and longer. I ignored daylight and hope. I didn't care if the sky had begun to clear. Most of the ashes had fallen to the ground, leaving the horizon a faint washed-out blue. On several occasions I had noticed white clouds. There was the promise of sunshine. That wasn't what I wanted. I would rather sleep than eat or see the sky. Each time I put away my ink and pins, I closed all the windows. I drew the shades. When I went to sleep, This is what I dreamed under the table where I felt safer, I tied a scarf around my burning eyes so not even the tiniest bit of light could disturb me or remind me of what I had lost. When I slept, I dreamed of the world as it was. My sister was clearing away the ashes. My sister was opening the window. Her hair was the color of moonlight, ice-colored, knotted from sleep. Help me, she'd demand when the window stuck fast in my dreams, when the door wouldn't open, when the ashes were so deep she'd never be able to clear them away all alone. I'd rise from my bed and do as she asked because I couldn't deny her anything. Once again, I was Green, who had patience. I was the girl with long, black hair who held the open book, white pages, empty and clean, black words flying like ravens, still waiting for the future, still hopeful, still me. Whenever I dreamed and my sister was beside me, I could breathe easier. Auroras skin was silver, aglow with light. Sometimes in my dreams she had grown up and was my age exactly. Even as my twin she was still my beloved opposite: the moon, not brackish green water. Bright, not dim. Wild, not plodding and shy. She was my sister and she knew my thoughts before they were spoken. She knew why I couldn't bear to see. Why I wanted the cinders in my eyes. Why I never bothered going to my mother's medicine cabinet, where there were so many ointments and cures. My vision was little more than shadows, but even in my dreams, I wouldn't search for a cure. You know what you have to do in order to see, Aurora told me. She pinched me and pulled my hair to try to make me cry, but I wouldn't. Not in my sleep nor in my waking life. My sister may have been cold as silver in my dreams, but she was as real to me as the candlesticks on the dining room table. As real as the moon climbing into the ink-black sky. As real as needles and pins. Each time I awoke, I felt her slip through my grasp, a cloud of mist evaporating in the light of day. If I couldn't see, if I shut out >7 what was there before me and sleepwalked through my life, then I could go on dreaming. While I was sweeping the floor, while I collected buckets of water from the well, while I counted the jars of blackberry jam that were left in the pantry, first four, then two, then none at all, I was still with my sister. Each night, before I slept, I took the black ink and tattooed ravens and roses and bats that could fly through the dark. Though I was almost blind, I could see well enough to do this. I could spy black ink, sorrow, loss, hearts breaking. I could see well enough to see that I was alone. I could see that soon enough I'd be starving if I didn't figure out what to do next. I had picked all the blackberries that grew in the woods, all the blueberries, all the raspberries. I had found wild asparagus and made soups in the black pot I kept on the fire I left burning in the stove. My hands were rough from chopping wood, from gathering asparagus in the marshes, from collecting the few berries that hadn't been singed black from the heat across the river. There were very few tins left in the pantry, no flour, no salt. And my stomach went on growling, wanting me to stay alive. i I decided

BOOK: Green Angel
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