Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Another unearthed story - "Laila"
Found another story, also nearly 10 years old. Actually, I received an award for this one at a long-defunct site called Speckled Words. Like many of my stories, there's a paranormal slant to it.
A structured havoc is how Laila often referred to her garden. A deliberate mess of yellow creeping jennies, red peonies, and pink dogroses intersperced with tall grass, the garden gave the impression of wildness, but within restrained, invisible boundaries. She liked it like that, the undomesticated order, the lack of tight control. Off to the corner of the house stood a large poplar tree, its branches maned with sturdy green leaves, its shade reaching to shadow the growing buds of her garden. She aimed the nozzle in her hand at the group of dogroses and sprayed the pesticide evenly, deliberately. Aphids and other pests had been at the garden leaves, evidenced by the rough-hewn holes borne throughout the green mass and she was resolute in her goal to kill off the little cretins before they killed off her flowers. As she set about wreaking destruction, she hummed to the strains of Stan Getz’s Morning of the Carnival coming from inside her wired screen door, her hips moving slightly in rhythm to the bossa nova beat as she continued to spray.
"Good morning, Laila, how you doing this morning?" a bass tenor merged with the sound of a tenor horn coming from the radio. Laila turned to find Mr. Raymond eyeing her over the gate that separated their yards, a mawkish smile showing his appreciation for her form fitting jeans, and the taut stomach exposed by her halter top. She put on her no-nonsense face.
"Fine, just tending to my garden," she said in an unencouraging monotone. What she really wanted to say was "Just tending to my business, like you should be doing..." but she didn’t, not seeing the benefit in souring an already irritating neighbor relationship. Mr. Raymond, although nearing 70 and with an ailing wife locked away somewhere in the house, nevertheless believed he had a few good oats in his sack and was constanty attempting to sow them in the direction of any breathing female over 16 and under 60. As she was nearing her mid-thirties, she, unfortunately, fell within his preferred age range.
"See you got a little bounce ta you today," he said as he rested an arm on the fence, his posture seeking to invade her space, her yard.
"Look here, Mr. Raymond, I don't have time to talk right now. I got to finish with my garden and get outta this heat."
Mr. Raymond looked up at the sun as though only now realizing it was up there, then turned his smile back on her. "TV man says its gonna hit upwards to 90 today. Gonna be hot. See ya dressed for the weather though."
Laila stopped her spraying and gave him a much harder look this time, her eyes unblinking, her forehead furrowed. The look was the one she reserved for the rowdier students in her high school English class. "Don't think all this heat is good for someone your age, Mr. Raymond. Might be too much for your heart." Something in her voice indicated she hoped this would be the case.
But Mr. Raymond just shook his head and smiled. "This ole heart has stood more heat that this here. Sun's been kinder to me than most though."
Laila wasn't sure what he meant, nor did she want an elaboration. The plants were sufficiently doused; it was time to go in. She started for the door, yet Mr. Raymond was rambling on about something.
"...can remember the time when I was jes a boy pickin' cotton down in Miss'ippi...sun usta beat down on me so hard, almost turned my skin black. Always felt like I was in the meaner part of hell. Hands would be bleedin' from separatin' the cotton from the boll. Had little stickers like tiny claws 'long the outside of the boll that would stab your fingers, make them bleed. But ya better not bleed on the cotton 'cause you couldn't sell cotton wit' blood on it."
Laila didn't understand why she was standing there listening. Maybe because Mr. Raymond's eyes were no longer on her, but were looking off into the distance, his mind on his reminisce, not on her behind. She hadn't known he picked cotton as a child; as a matter of fact, she knew nothing more about him than that he seemed to be a caretaker for his ailing wife and that he was the type of old man admonitions warned you about.
He looked younger now; with his wrinkles relaxed she could see a little of the young man he must have looked like. She could see that he had been handsome once. And she also realized that it must be hard to lose your looks, your youth and know that most of your life was behind you. Still that wasn't an excuse to act like an ass most of the time.
Something made him turn toward his bedroom window overlooking the garden. Laila suspected it was his wife, peeking out, checking on her errant husband. She felt empathy for the sick woman, trapped in the house while her husband tried to make a play for a much younger woman. Men could be dogs sometimes.
After a few seconds, he turned back to her. His stance was no longer loose, his body almost stiffened erect. His eyes seemed regretful.
"Ever wished for somethin' so hard, ya jes knew that God had to give it to ya otherwise there was no reason for existin'?" he asked suddenly, his eyes pinning her where she stood.
He paused, waiting for her to answer. She didn't know what to say. She never believed in wishing. Hoping was more reasonable, but she had never appealed to any being to bring about circumstances that weren't within her control. She generally rolled with the waves that crested in her life, feeling thankful to no one in particular when she came out only slightly scathed, maybe somewhat ahead or not that far behind.
"I don't make wishes; they're a waste of time," she answered with finality, turning to go. His voice stopped her again.
"Ah, but there be wishes that can come true. I once made a wish and now wish that I hadn’t."
Why was she still standing here? Why weren't her feet moving toward her door, providing her escape from his trip down memory lane? And yet, her ear tilted toward him in an anticipation she couldn't explain. Her curiosity was piqued about this man who always looked as though he had secrets to tell, who now displayed a dignity that was often too well hidden by his usual mask of foolery.
He was staring at her strangely. "I wished for a long life that weren't comin' to me. I put off death, met it face to face and wished to God that I had power o'er that demon. And right when it woulda carried me off, God gave me that power. Thang is, the only one I could save was myself, not those around me.
Laila frowned, feeling more uncomfortable than before the beginning of this strange conversation. Actually, the conversation had turned the corner from strange to pathetically weird and yet Laila told herself that it was understandable for an old man to delude himself into believing that he had some sort of power against death when death was closing in on him. Pathetic as the old man was, though, she wasn’t about to stand here and help him entertain the delusion.
"Mr. Raymond, I have to go in now," and for the second time she started for the door. But he kept on talking, and again she could not help but pause to listen.
"I see death sometimes hovering, like a hawk in the sky waitin' to swoop down on a poor titmouse. It's got its eye on you, Laila. You're that poor titmouse. Wished it weren't so, seeing as you have so much more livin' to do. But can't help ya now."
Laila stood there for a few seconds, shocked, not sure she had heard him correctly. But when she looked at the gravity in his face, she burst out laughing. The timbre of the laugh was derisive, mocking. Who did this old man think he was, God? No one had the prescience to know when someone was going to die. She had let this fool waste enough of her time.
This time as she continued the previously interrupted trek to her back door, she ignored his pleas as he called out to her. She let her back door slam shut, punctuating her contempt.
Mr. Raymond stood there, looking a few seconds at the closed door. At least he had had time to warn her; the others hadn't even been given that. He turned to his bedroom window to see a pair of golden eyes glaring out at him, malevolence making them gleam through the glass. It was still in the shape of the female that everyone knew as his wife.
In the end, he knew the blame rested with him. He shoulda been more careful and not let it (or rather, her) see him flirting again. Or he shoulda been quicker telling Laila all that needed telling. Not that she woulda believed him anyhow. What sane person would believe you if you told 'em that you had given over your body and soul to the demon known as Death over a hundred years ago, that she had promised to spare your life as long as you stayed with her, kept her happy. That the power you had over it was no different than that held by a man over a lovesick woman.
In the end, she was no different than any other female; she wanted fidelity. He had often failed on this count and had risked his immortality too many times with his wandering eye. Yet she never took it out on him. He could never convince her that he meant nothing by the smiling, the winking, the looking. But this time, he shoulda been more careful. He truly liked Laila.
He heard the sound of thrashing wings and turned just in time to see the demon-turned-hawk, golden eyes blazing, fly out of his window aiming toward one of Laila's opened windows. And he thought regretfully as he turned resignedly toward his own back door that nothing was more hellish than a female demon scorned.