“The sun is leaving now, painting in its wake a fleeting promise to return.”
Muriel glanced up from her laptop at the backyard fence. Its weathered, aging planks were bitten and warped with time—hideously in need of either paint or a sledge hammer--but at the moment Muriel didn't see the fence. Over its top the setting sun cast red and orange hues freely over the firmament. The woman smiled at the scene. She closed her eyes to accept one final, warm kiss before the fence swallowed the sun whole. A cool breeze stirred itself from slumber, fanning Muriel's face the moment the sun's last ray stopped lingering.
Opening her eyes, the woman took in her decaying fence with an impassive expression. At its feet sat a mass of dying Bermuda grass, mercilessly shorn and stiff, still reeking of its recent chemical bath. Muriel had long given up pulling it out every month. The weathered wood, the bleached, cut weeds, the bold snails coming out of hiding… these caught her eye and held it, her hackles building up behind each observance. She did not see the yellow roses blooming in one partially-shaded corner, nor that the petals appeared to recline under the long, splayed boughs of a nearby cedar. Her red and pink geraniums also went unnoticed, as did the sword ferns and hydrangea bushes that almost hid the fence. Muriel saw beyond the beauty to the hidden, creeping things that sought to destroy the work of her hands… the imperfect, the uninvited, the broken and the out-of-place. The garden—sans sunshine—seemed grayer and full of things yet to be done.
“O' bending light,” Muriel wrote in the tiny Twitter form field, “How well you hide life's blemishes… or at least better their appearance.”
The breeze grew cooler as she typed. Shivering, Muriel hesitated in getting up from the still-present warmth of the chair. Her nightly routine was waiting within doors. The vegetable garden needed watering as well; it waited patiently in its corner of the backyard, the plant fronds, buds and stems trailing expectantly over the raised edges of their beds.
“The sun has left me with my work,” the gardener wrote. “Tomorrow may it return to see a bit more completed.”
Posting her last tweet for the evening Muriel shut down Windows. She closed the laptop lid slowly, her eyes once again drawn to the fence. Out of habit she briefly ruminated upon the cost of replacing the entire back fence, even with the cheapest-possible cedar slats one could purchase from the grandiose home improvement store just a few miles away. Muriel shrugged. A new fence… or a specialist root canal? Both cost about the same, even with a dental plan.
The offending molar twinged as the twilight breeze drew more coolness into the air. Gingerly feeling the top of the tooth with her tongue, Muriel winced as pain shot down her jaw. She made a mental note to regale her children with yet another ‘brush-your-teeth' admonition, perhaps with a few horrific pictures of massive tooth decay downloaded from the internet. Smiling at the thought she stepped carefully through the main lawn on emerging, favored Fescue—sowed a few weeks before--moving almost reluctantly towards the back fence. Chores and tasks silently called out again from inside the house, but something in the way the old slats leaned against one another drew Muriel closer, past the pruned shrubs to stand on what remained of the beleaguered Bermuda grass.
She did not dare look to her left. Full well she knew what her eyes would see in the neighbor's yard: a new, redwood fence in back, topped with finely beveled lattice, perfectly stained and treated against the weather, rimmed by the most glorious, weed-free flowers one could ever wish to see. Looking at her own fence, Muriel wondered if her neighbors had paid for their project outright, or merely put it on a credit card.
“Card,” Muriel thought, scrutinizing her fence closely, “Unless Mark's taken on a second job.”
Reaching out she touched the ridged, pocked-marked surface of a loose board. Muriel felt the rough lines and wondered how tall the tree had been from whence came the board. Was it from a burned trunk, one of the many leavings of a rampant forest-fire? The scent of burning wood hung faintly in the air, Muriel noted... most likely from a fireplace down the street. The fire theory was plausible; the wood of the fence felt tragic to the touch; it looked tragic.
“Tragic… and yet you've looked out over this yard for over 30 years.”
The words left Muriel's lips before she was even cognizant of thinking them. The idea struck her silent. She and her husband were not the original owners, but they knew the man who'd built the house… and the fence. Her hand still touching the board Muriel felt a sudden sense of shame fall over her. “I've let you fall apart,” said she. The admission was spoken quietly, but the words seemed to hang in the air nonetheless.
Stepping back Muriel's foot brushed against a small stack of scrap lumber, leftover from making the garden boxes. Squinting down at the haphazard pile she remembered placing them there herself, thinking she'd return later that day and put them away. A scowl crossed Muriel's face at her own forgetfulness. Picking up the topmost piece of wood from the pile she shook it, and then dropped it immediately. A small black widow spider atop the board met a swift end under her shoe. After inspecting the wood more thoroughly Muriel picked it up again. Squinting at the fence she held the board up before it. She knew that she probably looked insane, standing there in the shade of the cedars clutching her laptop to her chest with one hand and picking up wood scraps with the other. Smiling, Muriel set the piece down and continued searching. A few more spiders, a few more boards… and then, an epiphany.
One of the scraps bore a distinctly curved side, a left-over piece from a weekend project months before; an Adirondack chair put together with the help of an old issue of Popular Mechanics, with marginal success. Turning the piece of oddly-shaped wood over Muriel glanced at a particularly sagged section of the fence. “With a few more pieces,” she thought, “I can bolster up the fence… with art.” The breeze blew in the cedar branches overhead. The flat needles stirred up that strange, rushing sound only they knew how to make. It invigorated the very blood in Muriel's veins.
Haste was present in her movements as she put away her laptop. Muriel located gardening clothes; pulled from the baskets in the laundry room they still harbored the morning's mud. Thusly arrayed, Muriel searched the sheds on the side of the house for more scrap lumber. She dragged out her husband's old miter saw and two paint flecked saw-horses. A smile graced the woman's face as she hauled over the scrounged bits of lumber and wayward bags of mismatched screws. The fence--blessed with one touch--soon felt many along with the cool, metallic feel of a measuring tape upon its surface and the scraping of a stubby pencil. Muriel drew a rough sketch of the picture in her head on the back of an advertisement envelope, plying the eraser, now and then biting her bottom lip.
The sharp buzz of the miter saw filled the backyard soon after, its noise gearing up to a tearing crescendo before tapering off to a low whine and then starting up again. Weathered bits of cut lumber stacked up next to the saw, one end as bright and new as the day it left the mill. Muriel paused between each to cross out yet another measurement, impatiently flicking her hair from her face. Home from school, her children stood at the glass door to the patio, looking out into the backyard, plainly wondering where their dinner was. Muriel smiled at her offspring, waving them closer. Directing her oldest daughter to re-heat leftovers she sent her son to find his father's hammer while the younger girls fetched the ‘outdoor' plates.
“We'll eat outside,” she told them, turning off the saw. “Like a picnic.”
Stepping over small piles of sawdust Muriel cleared the patio table and set up chairs. Turning on the backyard floodlights she marked and pre-drilled scraps of wood in the electric light. Mosquitoes flocked to the light, then to the willing victims seated nearby. Muriel's oldest daughter brought out a half-empty bottle of tea tree oil. Giving necks and wrists a quick slather, her mother thanked her and resumed drilling.
With little hands to help hold the fence up Muriel set the first board--the Epiphany Board--across the fence's drooping waistline, driving the galvanized screws deep into the wood. The wood beneath creaked and squealed at such treatment, but Muriel paid the sounds no mind. The initial glimmer of inspiration in her eyes gave way to one of determination as the next pieces were fitted, spaced and secured. With each new addition the crude sketch—now fluttering amid the sawdust—transcended its two dimensions, ‘growing' planes and lines with scope. An Escher-like fence began to emerge with rotating curves and blunted points, neatly covering cracks and adding stability where none had been in over a decade. The lines of the wood seemed to mimic the shrubs in front, the flowers providing depth for the eye as well as night-dampened color.
An hour passed. Muriel stood back from the fence, looking at her handiwork as the children cleaned up dinner. It was a far cry from the neighbors staid and pricey fence, standing so thin and plain some yards away. The wide wood-structure marking the very back of their city lot made up for its lack of status quo with dimension, artistic curves and enough re-claimed items to make any green-minded relative crow with delight. Tenderly feeling a newly-emerged blister on her palm, Muriel smiled at the fence with real joy, standing amid small scraps and sawdust. The moment swelled in her mind, putting words in her soul to utter… but she grabbed a broom before breaking out in verse:
“O' bending light, well you hide imperfection,
Though in your leaving you betray one's pride;
How happy are we to live and let live,
To ignore that which by we daily must guide.
O' drenching sunshine in your wake
The idea sprung and work took hold;
Old and forgotten becomes used again,
And so with motions well-worth their gold.
O' bending light, thy veil is needed no longer...”
A swift glance back at her children make Muriel laugh. The little faces—so like hers in feature--bore either uncertainty or an elevated eyebrow.
“One day you'll like poetry,” said their mother. “Now, help me clean up.”
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A short story inspired by a passing glance at the backyard of a foreclosed home. Hope indeed can be wrung from work.