“In the Garden,”

Fiction by David Kozatch

At least as Paul recalled their first meeting, it happened on an unremarkably warm afternoon just as summer was reacquainting itself with the East End. He’d been assigned to interview Olivia for an article his newspaper was putting together that would coincide with the annual June garden tour sponsored by the Springs Home Improvement Society. It would be his first garden story.

The sun was already intense as she greeted him in an alfresco dining area under a canopy and offered him a glass of iced tea. He described the purpose of his visit and apologized in advance for his lack of experience with the pleasures of gardening.

“Please be gentle with me,” he said before they set off, and she promised she would.

Initially, he had a little trouble focusing on the flora, with the fauna taking up so much of his attention: her vintage black slip worn loosely under an open chambray shirt; her raven hair tied in a bun on top of her head, a few hanging strands setting off her heavy hooded lids and dark lashes. He watched with anticipation each time the back of her muddy rubber boots caressed the flexure of her calves as she walked the property and pointed out each of her creations.

“This is such a great time to come by,” she began. “A lot of the flowers are blooming: wisteria, lilacs, clematis. It’s been a great year for rhododendrons, and the peonies are really lush right now. Soon they’ll turn into dirty Kleenex on their green stems.”

“What are these white flowers?” Paul asked, pointing to several bushes around the perimeter of one of the outdoor rooms.

“These are wild roses.” She held the petals gently between her fingers. “I know they don’t look like roses as you may think of them. They’re more flat and open. This is what roses used to look like before people bred them into crazy closed shapes.”

She then led Paul through a tour of each of the raised-bed garden rooms. There were several beds in each, with different varieties at various stages of growth.

“Why the raised beds?” he asked, notebook and pen at the ready.

“Each bed is a manageable size. I can walk around and reach everything without having to step in them.” He watched as she bent over a bed of flowers in the cutting garden and began to snip a few; she caught him staring but didn’t seem to mind. “I can control the soil. If I had a large open garden, then I would be constantly weeding and that’s not a war I want to fight. And, what’s great about creating different rooms is that you don’t have to put a fence around the whole property — that would really mess with the ecosystem here. This way everything is contained on a much more manageable scale.” She held out the bouquet of flowers for him to sniff.

“Nice,” he said.

In the two vegetable gardens there were asparagus and lettuce ready for picking, and peas were starting to grow their shoots. In a separate bed, ripe strawberries hung heavy from their stems, and the raspberries were starting to create green buds that would soon be bursting with their own luscious red fruit.

“I also grow my own lemons, oranges and plums —”

“Who is that lady with the camera? I thought our paper had an exclusive on this,” Paul said. He pointed out a dark-haired woman prowling the back end of the property along Accabonac Harbor, taking pictures. He had arranged for one of the photographers from his paper to come by later in the week to take pictures to run with his story.

“Oh, I forgot to mention when we spoke earlier. I’m going to be in a garden book. I mean, this is going to be. But don’t worry, the book won’t be out for at least another year,” she said.

“I was only joking about the exclusivity.” He felt a little embarrassed at having put her on the spot. “I can see why someone might want to put this in a book.”

“Oh, sorry, of course. God, it is hot today, isn’t it?”

Olivia proceeded to take off her long-sleeved shirt and place it on one of the rustic arbors. She explained how she had designed the arbor herself from twisted willow oak twigs she had gathered from the property. She was now down to only a black slip and shin-high boots, the primordial sex goddess presiding over her domain.

“Tell me about those boxes,” Paul said, pointing to an area containing low towers of stacked wooden boxes with drawers. The boxes were painted various pastel colors, with anywhere from two to four drawers stacked on top of banded wine barrels that had been cut in two at the waist.

“Those are my special ladies. I have a dozen hives going. They’re really busy now collecting pollen. This is the height of activity for them.” She led Paul closer to the cluster of hive activity, scraping off some of the honey but stopping when one of the worker bees landed on the sticky, cupped fingers of her right hand.

“If you look closely at the hind legs of the worker bees you can see all the different colors of pollen they’ve collected,” she said. “Up, see? Isn’t it amazing? The workers are all females, you know. The male drones stay in the hive and only leave when there’s a chance to mate with a new queen.”

Paul moved his head toward hers for a closer look. The two of them stared intently at the female’s hind legs as she crawled over Olivia’s fingers. Then Olivia took Paul’s hand and with her still-cupped fingers tried to pass the bee to him.

“Oh,” she uttered as the bee flew away in the direction of the hive.

Their eyes met, and she grabbed the back of Paul’s neck, now wet with perspiration, pulled him toward her, and placed her honey-soaked finger into his willing mouth.

They spent the rest of that afternoon in Olivia’s bed.

“This was a bad idea,” Paul said while zipping up his jeans when they were through. It came out almost as a question.

“Yeah, terrible. What were we thinking,” Olivia said similarly. She didn’t bother getting dressed, instead wrapping herself up in a skimpy silk robe that stopped several inches above the knee.

They took a slow walk together down the stairs — the walk of strangers turned lovers turned strangers. Before saying goodbye, she left him for an adjoining room off of the kitchen but soon returned with a small white shopping bag.

“It’s okay. Take it.”

He peered inside: There were the fresh-cut flowers she’d snipped earlier, along with a small jar of honey and a dozen eggs from her chickens. “Everybody gets one,” she said and kissed him on the cheek.

He wasn’t exactly sure what she meant but felt obliged to accept it.

David Kozatch is a writer living in Wainscott. He has recently completed his first novel, a literary thriller set on the East End.