Issue No. 16, Spring 2016

Among the Phlox
Iva Levarre

Judie stepped with gladness into the shelter of the phlox-corner, as she called it. A large rock, smooth and without moss or lichen, was encircled by elm trees and ringed round the base by sumptuous beds of blue phlox. It was Judie’s favorite spot to sit in, and she was sure her mother did not know about it. Judie wouldn’t mind so much if she did, but she doubted her mother would delight in it in the same way that Judy did. Rosy and jolly, Mrs. Patlock was a fine companion to Judie, but she did not appear to possess an iota of romance or dreaminess, of which there was an abundance in Judie. Mrs. Patlock spent hours tending to their rambling cottage garden, but she did not speak of its beauty and atmosphere so much as its prosy aspects: weeds, bugs, and soil.

“Those pests are at it again,” she would say at breakfast, before proceeding outside with a grim face under her straw hat, gardening tools in hand like weapons. “Slugs! Slugs everywhere! If their slime had value I could export it by the gallon and make a fortune.” But she never had the heart to squash them. She only took them outside the garden gate and nudged them in the opposite direction. Anyone watching the spot might see, early every morning, a procession of disappointed slugs trooping off to find another place to feed. But no one ever was watching, for there was no one to do so. The nearest dwelling was several miles away, the town still further.

No, Judie was very devoted to Mrs. Patlock and they were happy in their cottage, but Judie sometimes needed more than the joy found in simple household tasks and the companionship that was by turns rollicking and quiet. Something in her must drink from the ethereal spring that set her spirits soaring into mystic realms enfolded in eternity. She always found it in the phlox-corner, where her soul drank in the rustling leaves and swaying shade. She felt that she could sit and stare at the serene blueness of the phlox forever. When Judie emerged from the spot she was always satisfied, ready for more laughter and practical busyness.

Judie’s prosy activities were mending, cooking, and preserving. At times she resented them for taking her away from her dreams and fancies, but she found that she could imagine beautiful things while working at her tasks, and they were necessary for the good of her and Mrs. Patlock. They had plenty to live on with the money Mrs. Patlock’s late husband had left, but they had to be economical in places too. They must do their own work and keep their purchases simple. “Some women go gadding off to buy fine stuff of organdy and silk as soon as they have a bit of money. Not us—we have no use for fine things.” Judie would nod, but, looking at their humble attire as she mended it, she thought that she would not at all be averse to a fine dress or two, arrayed in colors as bright as the flowers she so loved.

Today, perched on the rock and looking down at the flowers, Judie spotted a small piece of crumpled paper lying beside her foot.

Picking it up and turning it over in curiosity, she read, “I know a place…” The handwriting stopped mid-sentence.

A place what? Judie wondered. What had the person been planning to write, and who had found the phlox-corner? Someone who enjoyed its sanctuary like her, she was sure of that. Surely it could not be either of the two people who lived at the nearest house, two middle-aged, churlish bachelors who appeared not to have the slightest bit of poetry in them. Yet perhaps it was hidden and she had misjudged the brothers or at least one of them. There was really no one else who could have left the paper unless someone passing by had paused in the phlox-corner.

An idea struck her. She excitedly reached into her dress pocket for a pencil she always kept there in case she was led to transcribe her musings onto paper. But just now she would not use the fresh paper that accompanied it.

“I know a place…where…” Judie thought, looking down at the crumpled paper in her lap. “Where there are silver fields and golden woods.” She completed the sentence thus, then paused to picture leaves of pure gold rippling down from golden branches, stalks of silver swaying in the breeze. “But of course they are just like real leaves except for their color. They’re still soft and living,” she murmured. “And so are the stalks of the fields.”

Before leaving, Judie placed the paper on the rock where she had been sitting and weighed it down with her pencil. Perhaps whoever left it would find it and be pleased by what she had written.

The next morning Judie hurried to the phlox-corner before her mother was up. Of course it’s too soon, she told herself. The person couldn’t have responded yet.

She found the paper lying exactly where she had left it and felt a moment of disappointment that surprised her with its keenness before seeing that a third line had been added since the day before.

“There is a place…
Where there are silver fields and golden woods…
Moon tear houses and evergreen castles…”
the paper read.

“Vessels of dreams and seas of roses,” Judie added to it, then fairly skipped over the lawn and into the house for breakfast.

“Been gadding about since dawn, have you?” said her mother with a genial wink. “Ridding the beds slugs I missed, maybe. Did you use a magic—” Mrs. Patlock cut herself off as though she had choked on the word.

Judie, humming as she sliced a peach, did not notice. She was thinking of the piece of paper in the phlox-corner and wondering what her correspondent would write next. Would lunchtime be too soon to check for a new reply? So exciting was the written exchange that it occupied her thoughts constantly. Never had a thing so enchanting happened to her. She hardly heard her mother’s chatter in her wonderment over who her correspondent could be. She longed to know yet loved the delight of secrecy.

And so it went on with Judie and her mysterious correspondent for a week. They mapped many fair lands, conjured sweet fancies, and named charming personages far removed from human kin. Judie thrilled to every line she wrote and received. Somewhere she had a friend who also delighted in secrets, in hidden spots of beauty and dreamy imaginings. On the one hand, she longed to meet the unknown person, for she could not tell whether it was man or woman, adult or child. On the other, the novelty of the indirect friendship would be lost if they met in person. In addition, Judie had a feeling that it would end when the small paper no longer had room for more words, and she did not want to use any other. It had an enchantment that a fresh piece would lack.

Judie and Mrs. Patlock still had their golden hours of companionship, and Judie did not savor them less. Her mother brought laughter from her like no one else and instilled in her daughter gratification over honest hard work. The faceless correspondent, meanwhile, gave Judie a sense of magic lurking wherever she looked. Between the two comrades, Judie’s heart welled up like a fount of joy. It could not be denied, however, that she did feel a twinge of regret that both the prosy and poetical  personalities could not be found in one person and guilt that she kept the paper a secret from Mrs. Patlock, who, she feared, would spoil its witchery.

One day Mrs. Patlock asked Judie why she was often running off to the garden. “Oh, checking for weeds,” said Judie.

Mrs. Patlock laughed. “Ah, you think in my old age I cannot catch each one?”
“No, only…it is pleasant to weed a garden, to look all over it for weeds that may be hiding. It is wholesome work,” Judie explained, feeling prim and unnatural.
Mrs. Patlock nodded. “Practical. I raised my girl to be practical, and so you are.” Her eyes beamed approval.

Judie imagined what her mother would say if she knew her “practical girl” really spent those stolen minutes dreaming up imaginary places. “Fanciful girl,” she would say, shaking her head with a look like that she gave the undesirable slugs. “I never raised you to be so.”

“Extraordinary girl I have,” Mrs. Patlock was murmuring to herself. “I never met a young person so interested in weeding.”

At the end of one week Judie was sitting on the rock in the phlox corner with the paper in her hand. By now it was even more crumpled and a little grubby, but neither her nor her correspondent minded, for it held the fair fragrance of romance. Her eyes passed sadly over the last two lines again, the first written in the spindly writing she had grown familiar with:

“We must soon meet, for the end of this sheaf draws nigh. Another we cannot use.”

“Then let it be where our fancies haunt the shadows,” Judie had agreed the evening before.

Now she waited in the phlox-corner, hoping uneasily that her correspondent was going to appear, for never had so much time elapsed between replies. And yet, in nervous anticipation, she was fearful of  who the person might be. Suppose whoever it was disliked her in person or expected her to be beautiful and wildly charming? Suppose it was a terribly handsome man? How she would blush and stutter if that was the case! And was the person male or female? Maybe it would be a young woman her age, and they would find that their spirits matched and melded.

She heard soft footsteps just then. Her heart pounding almost painfully, Judie sat up, tensed. At any moment now her correspondent would appear. The footsteps came nearer, then stopped. Someone emerged between the trees that bowered the phlox-corner.

Judie stood up, mouth agape. “Why—mother! I—” She stopped and gazed steadily at Mrs. Patlock. She was swathed in a leaf-green dress, her long, silvery-gray hair braided and coiled around her head. No jewels did she require, for her eyes supplied the bit of gleam on her person. She looked part of the surrounding greenery, at home among the rustling boughs.

“I came dressed for the occasion,” smiled Mrs. Patlock with folded hands. She slipped over to the rock and sat beside Judie, who knew now that her mother was the one she had been exchanging fancies with for the past week.

“It was you,” she said, her voice soft and her smile radiant. “I do not know how, looking at you—for you look like a wise leader of the woodland dryads—I don’t know how I did not suspect you of writing on the paper for me. But I never thought that you had a fanciful side!”

“Do you know, I did not think you had, either,” said Mrs. Patlock, “Or that anyone else knew about the phlox-corner.”

Judie blinked in surprised delight. “Oh—is that what you call this spot, too? How marvelous and—and magical. It is a wonder we never bumped into each other here. I suppose it was because we only came here when we were sure the other was occupied elsewhere. And now I discover that my gay companion and soulful friend are both right here with me after all in a single person. Here I was thinking I needed someone besides you, mother. We must keep that paper forever and frame it!”

“I think we have just been misunderstanding each other all this time,” said Mrs. Patlock thoughtfully. “Both of us were hesitant to give voice to our imaginings with the conviction that the other would not appreciate or approve of them. But now all is out in the open and our imaginations can run rampant. When in the mood for prose we will talk prose; when for poetry, poetry. Which reminds me: in that golden wood of yours there are birds covered in jewels. I saw one once with tiny, blue-white pearls covering its feathers and a plume of sapphire upon its head. Would you not love to see it?”

Judie’s eyes beamed into Mrs. Patlock’s. They pressed one another’s hands, smiling down into the blue phlox that had always held such promise.

Iva Levarre has always loved to write, particularly stories inspired by sentimental fiction and fairy tales.