I pretend to be asleep when the Old Man comes. I tuck my knees into my chest and burrow under the warm quilt my mother made, hiding in plain sight. But I know he’s not fooled. The riot of dandelions circling my bed in a carpet of fresh grass that spills into the hall gives me away.
He knocks politely, but only once. There’s no pause between the end of the sound and the rush of brisk air from the opening door. Grass crackles beneath his feet, then a slow chill creeps through the quilt as he sits beside me.
This is my favorite part of the game.
“Oh, darn, it seems I’ve come too early,” he says in a singsong voice. I have to cover my mouth to stifle my giggles, scrunching my eyes and holding my breath for good measure. We’ve played so many times, but the anticipation never gets old. With a crisp sigh, he says, “Little Primavera is still a-snooze. We’ll have to wait for next year to celebrate her special day.”
The mattress bounces as he stands to leave. I wait as long as I can. He’s opening the door when I can’t stand it anymore.
“Gotcha!” I shout as I explode from my nest of pillows and blankets, leaping onto the bouncy lawn of my floor. He acts surprised, though he never is. I put my hands on my slim hips and say, “You give up too easy, Daddy.”
The Old Man chuckles with icicles in his throat. He bends on creaky knees into the circle of frosted grass beneath his feet, and I race into his open arms, pressing my apple cheeks into his snowy beard. He smells like clean ice and cinnamon.
I don’t let go until I’m nearly frozen through. Then I lean back, smooth my emerald sundress with both hands, and fix him with my most serious stare. “Is it really today already?”
He nods with a smile. I clap and bounce my curly auburn hair in a show of excitement because I know it makes him happy to see me happy. I pretend not to see the sadness in his eyes as he takes my hand and leads me outside.
Momma’s garden is always beautiful, no matter who tends it. Right now, it’s beautiful for its naked limbs under a sparkling white blanket, its buzz of life lulled to a reverent hush while it sleeps. But I know what lies beneath, how much more beautiful can be. My feigned joy begins to turn real.
The Old Man and I walk silently hand-in-hand through the gate, down the snow-dusted cobblestone path, pretending we have nowhere to be. It gives the garden fits, us being here together—ambitious grass and flowers compete with confused ice and snow for our attention. We laugh at early birds puffing up their feathers, indignant at the juxtaposed weather.
This is my second favorite part, this stolen time. I want it to last forever.
Too soon, we’re standing in front of the rose bed.
“Are you ready?” he says, letting go of my hand. I pretend not to notice his hesitation. I pretend not to care.
I look up at him, his face tired and worn but full of love. Like Momma’s, but in reverse. I wonder how long it’s been since he’s seen her. If the four of us can ever be together again.
I shake my head with tears in my eyes. This is my least favorite part of the game.
He makes a sad sound. “You’ll do a great job,” he says. “You always do.” He takes a step back. “Give your mother my love when she comes to put you to bed.”
“I will, Daddy.” I smile big, trying to be brave. “And when Automne wakes you, tell him I said he’s a whiny brat.”
The Old Man laughs softly and shakes his white head. “You should be nicer to your brother, even if you never see him. Especially so.” He strokes my hair affectionately, but the trail of frost he leaves melts as quickly as it forms.
With an icicle forming on his cheek, he takes a final glance around the garden and sighs with satisfaction at the world he’s created these long months. The world I’ll dismantle and remake in ways he’ll never see. Then, with one last sad smile, he leaves me standing alone in a circle of melted snow beside bundles of thorned sticks shivering with cold.
For a moment, I’m a human girl, scared and helplessly lost in the wilderness, the vastness of the world threatening to swallow her whole without her daddy.
Then I touch the tippy-top of the rosebush. And I remember I am me again.
A laugh that starts deep in the ground below my feet seeps through my toes, rolls up my legs, dances along my spine, and erupts from my throat in notes like a creek filled with sudden rain. It runs to the ends of my fingers and pours out in sunlight tinted pink and cream, swallowing up the brittle flower stems until we both glow with joy.
The first tiny bud, still decorated with my father’s finest crystals, is so red against the pure white snow that it hurts my eyes. I lean in close to hear her heartbeat. She isn’t asleep. She’s only pretending.
I smile knowingly. This is a new game.
“Wake up, little one,” I whisper into the flower’s heart. “Spring is here.”
With a glorious slowness, the blossom stretches and peels open in a crimson yawn, shedding her icy blankets and reaching for the sun, announcing to her sisters that it’s finally time to come out and play.
Story content © Ellie Di Julio 2015
Art: “Rose” via Pixabay