Nonfiction

Tidal River, watercolor by Sarah Sutro

The Hedge

When Roy suggested trimming the back hedge, I told him to leave it alone. My voice surged when I said it, as if it mattered more than it did.  We stood in the shade of the pergola whose wood was dry and splintered from ruinous summer suns. He leaned on one of the posts, causing the massive structure to sway.

 

 “Jeez, you better treat this wood before the whole thing collapses.”

 He tipped back his full-brim hat with the inside of his elbow and wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his arm. I shrugged. Though Roy had been my gardener for twenty years and we got along well, his suggestions for improving the state of the yard always sounded like rebukes of the ways I neglected it.  

I scanned the length of the hedge. It was tall, positively looming. It cast a shadow over a generous strip, probably half the yard. No wonder the grass was yellow and withered. How had it not occurred to me to trim this thing years ago?  There was no question: it had to be cut down immediately. But, for some reason, visualizing the truncated hedge made me queasy.  I told Roy I’d get back to him.

After he left, I stood in the once sturdy, now flimsy pergola and recalled a conversation I’d had with a real estate agent in this same spot some twenty-five years earlier, when the yard was mud and the house an architect’s sketch. 

 “You’ll always have this,” the agent had said, sweeping her hand panoramically left to right across the rolling Judean hills to the old stone monastery at Bet Jamal. 

 The view was unspoiled, bucolic; I inhaled its expansiveness. The house marked a new beginning in my life. Here on the outskirts of Jerusalem, I would raise my family; my life would unfold.

When I moved into the house with my husband and three children, I planted the podranea along the back fence, advised that it would provide shade, privacy, and a flourish of pink, trumpet-shaped flowers. I never intended to block the view, but the stems of the twelve root bulbs grew quickly, joining forces in an impermeable Red Rover chain. In no time, a crisscross of tough branches sprang up, twisting through the fence rails. The hedge grew higher and bulkier, swallowing up the red-tiled roofs of the houses on the street below. As for the promised flowers, none bloomed.

Still, there was something comforting about the hedge’s solid presence at the outer edge of the yard. Within its safe enclosure the children played ball, jumped on the trampoline, and leapt through sprinklers on hot days. The dog chewed the irrigation pipes and uprooted the pansies. The peach tree died, but the lemon tree bore fruit destined for lemonade stands. Impromptu visits by a hedgehog in the early evenings caused a hullabaloo, the dog barking wildly and the children crying for the safety of the small, prickly mammalian ball.  

I bought a shed in which to store the soccer net, bicycles, scooters, hockey sticks, baseball bats, and rollerblades. I furnished the pergola with a table, chairs, and grill, and the family celebrated countless birthdays, holiday meals, and get-togethers in the shade of its thick slats. The days tripped over each other in a raucous jumble.

Life was full, demanding, and, for the most part, good. I kept a hectic pace. There was little time to think beyond the next doctor’s appointment, math test, or birthday party. Though I had written prodigiously in my teens and twenties, with solitude scarce in my thirties and forties, my output had dwindled to calendar entries, bank checks, and grocery lists. Half-filled journals lay piled in a cupboard, and creative writing projects languished in a rarely opened computer file labelled “stories.”

I don’t remember the day the podranea obstructed the view; it happened gradually. The hedge grew taller, its branches more tenacious, its leaves denser, until the day I cast my gaze to the perimeter of the yard, met the opaque green wall, and looked no further. The view had vanished, as had my memory for what it had been. 

  After fifteen years, the dog died. After twenty, the children moved on. In the now quiet yard, birds of paradise grew undisturbed. Mornings I sat in the pergola with its new Montmartre café-style chairs, sipping cappuccino and staring at the hedge.  Late at night, the jackals, who’d moved closer to the neighborhood due to construction in the hills, howled in an eerie chorus.  

  Months passed. Then one morning on my way to work I came across Roy in the garden on his hands and knees, wrench in hand, prying open a joint in a water pipe. I hadn’t come to any decision but, before I knew it, I heard myself ask him if he could trim the hedge. Roy widened his eyes in surprise, then smiled and shook his head. I expected him to say, “Didn’t I suggest this months ago?” or “It’s about time!” or “Why now?”  but he said, “Sure thing,” and resumed work on the pipe. 

When I returned home later that day, I noticed an unfamiliar light emanating from the property and followed the stone path around the side of the house to the backyard. I approached the hedge in measured steps, maneuvering around the stray branches that littered the lawn, stopping at the spot where I’d stood with the real estate agent years ago. The pruned hedge stood as high as my chest, its top flat and long as a sidewalk. It looked so innocuous, I laughed. I couldn’t imagine why I’d been so reluctant to cut it down. Then I looked out. Youll always have this, a voice echoed. 

Sure enough, the blurry-edged hills came into focus as my eyes adjusted to the distance. On the furthest hilltop squatted the monastery, staid and unchanged, in its grove of olive and mastic trees. The breadth of the view was almost too vast; I squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them, I felt knocked off-balance, as if the world had shifted infinitesimally. I took a few unsure steps back in the direction of the pergola, extended an arm to the post, pictured the edifice wavering above me, and withdrew it. Returning in baby steps to the hedge, I took a steadying breath. Here was the view Roy had asked if I’d missed. The realization hit me with palpable force: it had been here all along. 

In my mind’s eye, I saw the picturesque view of decades ago, the hills rising and falling against the horizon like swellings in the sea. I remembered the expansiveness it had breathed into my younger self, the sense of possibility and opportunity. 

Looking more closely, I noticed dirt roads coiling around the hills and white apartment buildings, like misaligned teeth, jutting from their flattened tops. The deforested hillsides bore hydro poles and wires. Dump trucks and bulldozers crouched in spots like giant insects. Tears gathered in my eyes. A lifetime had passed: Somewhere out there was a person I might have been.  

 I patted my pockets for a tissue, found none, and wiped my nose on the back of my hand. Retreating into the shade of the pergola, I sat down on a wrought iron chair. The lawn, free of the shadow of the hedge, lay exposed to the sun’s glare. Much of the grass was brown and dry. I remembered Roy telling me that, though it looked dead, it was, in fact, dormant, waiting for the first winter rain.  But I felt sorry for it, the way it clung with its last breath to the earth.

  I leaned back in the chair. The iron coils pressed into my back.  For twenty-five years my field of vision had ended at the hedge; I hadn’t imagined what lay beyond.  I’d lived from bath time to snack time to bedtime and, at work, from appointment to appointment.  I’d put my dreams on hold while I raised a family and made a living, then forgot I’d had dreams at all. 

I looked up—the strips of sky between the dusty roof slats looked artificially fresh and blue. Children whooped in the yard next door. I stared a long time at my hands curled in my lap. 

   I’d known what I’d wanted to do with my life since third grade when Mrs. Galbraith asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up “An astronaut…a fireman… a nurse…a mommy,” her other pupils said. I said, “a writer.” Everyone laughed. For twenty-five years, while I raised a family and worked as a speech language pathologist, the narrating voice in my head did not abate. But I hadn’t written a word. Now, it seemed, it was too late. 

Just then, a flash of white beyond the hedge caught my eye. I hoisted myself upright, walked back to the perimeter of the yard, rose on tiptoe, peered down to the backyards of the homes on the street below—and caught my breath. Falling in billows down the slope were hundreds of white, pink, and violet trumpet-shaped flowers. They looked like frothy bubbles overflowing a giant tub.  

I teetered, shifting my weight side to side, trying to stay upright and keep the flowers in view. What were they doing here?  I could only imagine that they’d pulled south toward the sun, falling over the top of the hedge and down the opposite side of the fence rail. They formed an extraordinary canvas of pastels:  a Monet garden abutting my garden. A sound escaped me—half cry, half laugh.  

 A wind blew in from the hills, causing a wide ripple across the flowers. Lowering myself from tiptoe, I pressed my heels into the earth. The flowers disappeared behind the hedge but, when I closed my eyes, I could still see them. 
 

 

Ghana Paintings
by Helen Bar-Lev
  Helen Bar-Lev, whose vivid paintings of Ghanaian men and women illustrate this issue’s poetry page, is offering a special set of her paintings of the people of Ghana, either as originals (for $350) or as signed and numbered prints ($20). The paintings, which Bar-Lev refers to as pencil paintings, are exquisite miniatures, each approximately 11cm by 15cm (4.5" x 6"). Sixty percent of the proceeds from the sale of these paintings goes to support the Ghana branch of the Sheenway School. Sheenway School in Sasekope Village is the first registered private school in the Volta Region of Ghana. Its partnership with the original Sheenway School in Los Angeles, its enriched curriculum, extended education, and cultural aesthetics provide an unparalleled opportunity for Ghanaian children from pre-K through secondary. To see the full range of Ghanaian paintings or prints available as part of this special offer, contact Helen Bar-Lev and let her know you are a Persimmon Tree reader.

Bios

Miriam Mandel Levi is a writer and editor living in Israel. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfictions anthology Same Time Next Week, Brainchild, Literary Mama, Under the Sun, Poetica, bioStories, Sleet, Tablet, Blue Lyra, Chautauqua, Random Sample, Sky Island, JMWW, MoonPark, and The Sunlight Press.

Sarah Sutro’s art and writing express the interface of nature and culture. She explores light and color in gardens and wild areas where she lives in the Berkshires, MA, and in watery coastal landscape when she travels. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Études (Finishing Line Press), a book of essays, COLORS: Passages through Art, Asia and Nature (Blue Asia Press), and the forthcoming Natural Wonders (Finishing Line). www.sarahsutro.com

3 Comments

  1. Mary, thank you for reading and commenting on my story. I think there are benefits to writing later in life. We bring a wisdom and perspective to our stories. Best of luck with your writing!

  2. We lived parallel lives. Discouraged from becoming an “author,” I went ahead raising a family, teaching music privately, and then becoming an SLP. Now retired with the kids mostly gone, I am sitting down to write. Thank you for your beautiful piece.

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