Beneath the Linden Tree

What sounded like the burners firing from a hot air balloon roared overhead. Melia ran out into the yard, hoping to see it up close. She loved the balloons. On pleasant summer days like this one, they gave rides over the river valley to tourists. The balloons hardly ever came in this far, and when they did were so high up as to be dots against the sky. This one, however, sounded low to the ground. She imagined it a kaleidoscope of color, its basket skimming the trees, almost within reach. She needed some joy about now, even if it was fleeting.

Melia looked up, but didn’t see a balloon, just a few high, feathery, clouds. Dejected, she started back inside, then something caught her eye. A tail, spiked with purple scales, iridescent in the sun. It made a wide, sweeping motion, then disappeared behind Omi’s garage.

Ever since the funeral, Melia had avoided Omi’s house. It sat just across the alley from her own, detached garages facing one another, Melia’s a deep crimson, Omi’s a periwinkle blue. Curious, Melia hurried across her backyard, overgrown, lawn all creeping Charlie and crab grass, some boxwoods yellow from too little water, too much sun. All of it dominated by an ancient, dying elm, leaves providing too little shade.

Heading out her back gate, faded wooden pickets always sticking, Melia didn’t notice she was in her bare feet until she was in the alley, the blacktop hot against her soles. She ignored the pain. More times than she could count, Omi had admonished her for going without shoes. “Those are more paws than feet,” she’d say with a scowl that was more smile than frown.

At Omi’s own wrought iron gate, freshly painted like new, Melia paused. She hadn’t been in Omi’s garden since the old woman passed away. She couldn’t bring herself to go to the services, or to the luncheon held there afterwards. Instead, she stayed in her room, kept her ear buds in, music turned up loud, so she couldn’t hear the laughter of those paying their last respects wafting across the alley. How could they laugh, when Omi was gone?

The gate had a lock. “To keep rabbits out,” Omi would joke, admitting she didn’t even know where the key was, wouldn’t lock it regardless. With a trembling hand, Melia unhooked the latch, eased the gate open just enough to slide through. As she stepped across the stones that cut a path between the garage and a neatly pruned hedgerow, she half expected to turn the corner and see Omi’s well-kept garden in shambles, with overgrown shrubs and withering roses and flower beds overwhelmed with weeds.

It wasn’t, though. Except for a thistle or dandelion sprouting up here or there, which Omi never would have allowed, the garden looked almost as well tended as the last time Melia saw it, the same day Omi had complained how tired she was, how she needed a nap. Melia felt guilty, not realizing what this meant, that Omi never took naps, that she would never see her friend again, had no chance to say good-bye.

The garden was Omi’s pride and joy. A tiny, manicured lawn surrounded by all manner and color of irises and petunias and lilies. Ivy grew thick. Grape vines climbed up trellises. Roses bloomed full – white and pink (“Never red,” Omi told her once. “I’m too old for love”). In one corner stood a dwarf maple that in fall turned a flaming red. A linden grew tall and straight just off center from the middle of the lawn, providing just the right amount of shade for the little brick patio, with its café table and two chairs, where Omi and Melia would sit and drink lemonade (“With a little extra something for me,” Omi would say with a wink) after a morning of weeding and watering and pruning.

Someone sat at the café table now. An old man, skin that looked like he had spent ages in the sun. He wore a loose shirt, loose pants, sandals, a floppy, wide brimmed hat. He wore dark sunglasses, but the movement of his head told her he was scanning the garden as if looking for something, finally settling on Melia’s tiny frame, her rolled up cut-offs betraying bruised and cut knees, her tank top showing off shoulders specked with scars from scratched mosquito bites.

Melia scowled, as if to let him know that this was not his place. This was Omi’s and to some extent hers. More than once, Omi told her she should play with friends her own age. Melia would respond that she’d rather spend time with her. Omi would turn away, but not before Melia glimpsed that grin of hers, amused and knowing with a hint of mischief.

The man scowled back at her. Melia wondered if she was being mocked, then decided she was. She turned to leave. There was no tail, no sign of the creature it had belonged to, not even a footprint in the grass to show it had ever been. A trick of the light, or what her teacher noted on her last report card as an overactive imagination. Besides, it hurt just to be there. Without Omi, it felt so empty and colorless, no matter how vibrant the flowers may be.

“You must be Melia,” the man said. His voice came from the back of his throat, like a wolf’s growl.

The hairs on Melia’s nape, cut short for summer, stood up on end. The sound of his voice, the fact he knew her name, sent her running. She hadn’t been scared at first, but now, all those horror stories they told her in school about being wary of strangers flooded her mind. She hurried to the back gate, found it locked. She heard the man coming up behind her, his footsteps surprisingly heavy. She started to scramble up the gate. A hand clamped her shoulder. More gently than she would have imagined, the man guided her back down to the ground.

“Please, don’t go. I was her friend, too.”

Melia turned towards him. She pressed her back against the gate as if its bars, on the wrong side, would offer her some protection. Her lower lip trembled. She thought she was going to wet herself.

The man sensed her fear, backed away, arms wide, palms open. He smiled, teeth white, except one his upper canines, which shone a hint of gold. Melia might have made ready friends with Omi, but she had a pleasant smile. This man had a sharper grin. It was that smile of Omi’s that drew her to the old woman in the first place, that and the lilt in her voice.

“You there,” Omi called from her yard into the alley one day. Melia was bouncing a ball against the garage door, counting how many times she could catch it without it hitting the ground. It was only June, but already looked to be a long, lonely summer. No kids in the neighborhood, and her parents weren’t the playing type. “I could use your help.”

Melia hesitated. “Well, come on, are you a good neighbor or not?” Omi said. She was a small woman, round face on a petite body. There was nothing remarkable about her, except for the fact that she had the bluest eyes Melia had ever seen, strangely specked with purple, so that Melia thought they must be contacts.

In the garden, Omi pointed to a bucket of tulip bulbs. “Hand me those,” she said. Melia did as she was told, while Omi stooped over a sunny spot in the yard, buried them in the soil. When she was finished, Omi wiped her brow with a gloved hand, mud smearing her forehead.  “Come back tomorrow. We have roses to prune.”

The next day, Melia returned, showed up almost every day since. It wasn’t until she had worked with Omi for a while that she realized the old lady didn’t need any help from a young girl to keep her garden. That it wasn’t her who was helping Omi, but the other way around.

“How did you know Omi?” Melia asked now, thinking if they were talking, the man wouldn’t hurt her.

He laughed a rough laugh. “Omi, I like that. I’m sure she did, too. Your Omi, Renate, and I grew up together. Played together in the open sky.”

Melia thought this a strange thing to say but didn’t mention it. Sometimes, old people said odd things.

The man’s hands dropped to his sides. Melia’s body tightened. Her eyes darting from place to place, seeking some escape.

The man held up his hands again, higher this time, as if in surrender. “I understand, we get a bad reputation, those like me.”

With a slow, careful movement, so as not to startle her again, he lowered his hands, removed his sunglasses, folded them into the breast pocket of his shirt. His eyes were yellow, speckled green. Enough like Omi’s for her to drop her guard, but only slightly.

“Oh, they’re real,” the man said, as if reading her thoughts. “We can take many shapes, but the eyes never change.”

It dawned on Melia then, “The tail?”

The man, who she now realized was not a man, nodded. “Sometimes it’s hard to be subtle.”

“And Omi?”

He nodded again. “She left something. Beneath the linden tree. Do you know where she keeps the shovels?”

Melia gestured to the garage. He disappeared through the back door. It was her chance to run, but she stayed where she was. He returned with a pair of spades, blades black from heavy use. He handed one to her. She took it.

The two walked out to the linden tree, Melia careful to keep him in front of her. As he set his shovel into the soil, Melia let out a tiny yelp. “Omi would be upset, us digging here. We could damage the roots.” He put his foot on the spade, but did not push it in. “You care about this garden almost as much as she did.”

“I care about Omi more. Someone else will buy this place. They might tear it all out to make room for a pool. Worse, they might just leave it to rot. Too busy. Like my parents,” Melia said.

“Not much for gardening, huh?”

“Have you seen our yard? They aren’t much for anything but work,” They aren’t even about me, she wanted to add.

“Well, we aren’t here to destroy this wonderful garden,” he said. “We’re here to save it. Renate knew she wouldn’t be around forever, so she asked me for this favor.”

He drove the spade into the ground and motioned Melia to do the same. Together, they soon had a hole about two feet deep and two feet around.

“I think you’ll have to do the rest by hand,” he said.

Melia knelt in the soft, black soil, reached into the hole, amazed that their blades never hit even the tiniest of roots. She began to dig with her hand, pulling up tiny handfuls of dirt. She felt something squirm in her fingers. An earthworm. The first time she had encountered one, she screamed, but Omi just smiled that smile of hers, said they helped the garden grow. This one didn’t bother her at all.

After a few handfuls, her hand hit something. “I think it’s a rock,” She said.

He knelt beside her. Together they cleared the dirt away from the object. Working as one, like she used to do with Omi, Melia found that her fear had disappeared.

They lifted the object from the hole. It was not like any rock Melia had ever seen. It was perfectly smooth, ovoid, and it glistened a deep green in the sun.

“An egg?” She asked.

“Sort of,” he replied. “It was Renate’s, but you can’t crack it. There’s no yoke, no white, nothing will hatch from it.”

He let it go. Melia held it in both her hands, surprised at how light it was.

“Now, it’s yours,” he said.

Melia tilted her head, squinted at him.

“Your Omi, she was yours, wasn’t she? She could never have children, so she had this garden. Like you said, once the house is sold, the garden will most likely go to rot. Omi couldn’t have that, and she couldn’t have you lose it, along with losing her. She wanted you to have this. To, in a small way, give you both.”

“What do I do with it?”

He nodded toward her own house. “You have your own garden to tend.” He put a hand on Melia’s shoulder, then turned away. She looked down at the stone, the rock, the egg, whatever you might call it. When she looked up again, he was gone.

Melia heard the same rush she had heard before. She gazed to the sky just in time to see the long purple body, flecked blue, snake up high into the air. Flying without wings, like a snake moving through the grass. Melia continued watching until he became lost in the wisp of a distant cloud.

Burying the stone in her own yard, beneath the dying elm, Melia sat in the grass and looked around her, tired and sweaty, her mind already filled with ideas of what could be planted where, how she could steal cuttings and bulbs from Omi’s garden when no one was around. Tomorrow, the hard work of weeding and cleanup would begin.

Melia lay back on the ground. She looked up through the leaves of the tree. Perhaps it was the way the sun hit them, or that imagination of hers again, or something else, but they seemed just a shade greener, just a bit more alive, than before.