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Fiction

The Drought

I.

One hot, dry day and all the blossoms are gone, Louise thought, bending over her gardenia bush to pick off all of the buds that had withered in her absence. There had been thirty or more on the bush, ready to open up any day. Now there weren’t any. She’d picked the last of the open flowers to wear in her hair at the gallery opening for her friend’s exhibit. Irene was always producing new work that interested the galleries. It had been a long time since Louise had had a success.

Then there was the matter of her fish. He had died suddenly, without warning.  She’d noticed he was a little sluggish as she fed him the tiny live shrimp in the morning. By the time she got home at night, he was floating upside down in the water—stiff and pale.  

Are these metaphors for my life? she thought wearily. All week she had been trying to figure out her life—what to do with her summer, when to pursue an advanced degree, why there weren’t any men who wanted to offer her commitment. Why she was almost forty and hadn’t decided what to become or where to live or with whom. She sighed.

If children were like gardenias or beta fish, she shouldn’t have any, she thought. They probably wouldn’t last long under her care. “That’s one question resolved,” she said aloud. But underneath she knew it wasn’t her fault about the drought or the fish; she’d done her best.  Besides, everyone’s children are traumatized in one way or another, she reasoned. Every parent must feel imperfect much of the time. I could still choose to be a mother. . . .

But there just weren’t any men around willing to take that plunge into marriage, much less parenthood. And she didn’t want to do it alone, as some of her friends had done.

“Dammit, God,” she muttered aloud. “Why did you create us unfinished, needy, wanting companionship?”

She thought of the male artists she knew, most of whom seemed happy to live alone as celibates or with occasional companionship. Why was it so difficult to be a woman dedicated to art? Would she give up companionship to produce great art?

No, she thought, that is impossible. Even if fame and fortune were part of the deal. She did not want to be fifty and still alone, even if it meant producing amazing work during the next decade.

And yet she could never give up her art for the sake of having a “normal” life. She could never just be a housewife or a full-time employee for someone who enslaved her mind and squandered her talent for his or her own selfish purposes. And men, even the liberal types who seemed to want egalitarianism in the home, always seemed to expect her to put her own interests second to the relationship.

We are all damaged by the culture, she thought, as she absently picked the last yellow leaves from the gardenia bush and went into her workroom. There she began mixing colors from her tubes of acrylic and started to paint.  

In the morning she fell asleep in the chair next to her canvas. She had painted a portrait of herself in a coffin with her eyes shut and her arms crossed over her breasts. On her forehead there was a silvery fish, and at her navel a tiny gardenia bud was just starting to blossom.

II.

Later that morning she forced herself to rise. At breakfast a wasp flew into her tea mug and was struggling in an upside-down position to get out of the hot liquid. She poured it down the sink. The wasp, waving its tiny legs frantically, righted itself and crawled out.  She filled the cup with water and tried to flush it down the drain again.  Again, it continued to exert its will to combat the forces against it.  Who am I to take a life? she thought, abandoning the task and leaving the wasp to survive if it could.

Life can be so empty at times, she later thought as she observed her students at their drawing boards. They were chattering as they sketched the still life she had composed. Their drawings seemed flat and lifeless.

The Thursday afternoon group was composed of older women from the suburbs. They spoke together of their parties, their children, their shopping excursions. Would she want to be like them? No, she thought. And yet she envied their freedom from the financial cares and loneliness she felt.

I sometimes wish for death, she told her friend Derrick that evening. He had treated her to a wonderful dinner and listened, as always, to the current facets of her life. Twenty years her senior and himself a lonely man, he was sympathetic to her inability to find appropriate partnership and was a good friend. They laughed over her attachment to her fish and her gardenias. But when they had parted, she was tearful, malcontent. She went home and painted a second portrait. This time she was lying in a boat, her eyes closed in death. But the fish was at her breast and the gardenia emerged in full blossom from her womb.

III.

She awoke with a dull ache and a feeling of great fatigue. Aimlessly she began looking through her old journals, not sure what she would find there or why it might be significant. “Sometimes it seems that artists live their lives backwards,” she read in a passage written in her early 20s. “We seem to be first of all concerned with creation, not procreation or stability in relationships. Maybe the urge for these things comes later.”

Is this what had happened to her? Was now the later to which she had referred? How did it happen that suddenly she crossed over the demarcation line, becoming old, feeling unproductive and desperate to make some sense out of life? A poem from D.H. Lawrence written in her own handwriting fluttered out of her journal and onto her lap:

     As we live, we are transmitters of life.

     And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us. . . .

     Give, and it shall be given unto you

     is still the truth about life.

     But giving is not so easy.

     It doesn’t mean handing it out to some mean fool, or letting

     the living dead eat you up.

     It means kindling the life-quality where it was not,

     even if it’s only in the whiteness of a washed

     pocket handkerchief.

A washed handkerchief. A letter. A drawing. Was it really as simple as that?  She went to open her back door to let in some air. A card and a potted plant in a paper bag hung on her doorknob. It was a freesia, a purple-hued, sweet-smelling freesia. How did he know she had wanted one? The card said, “Thanks for last evening. I hope this makes up for the fallen blossoms until new ones appear.”

Yes, now she remembered. She had told Derrick of the gardenia bush as she had spoken of her barren life. She smiled.

On the third night she went again into her workroom. This time she painted herself and the fish swimming in a pool of water amidst long, trailing plant forms. On the surface of the water the plants were covered with dozens of gardenia blossoms and purple freesia. She surveyed her work when it was almost dawn and experienced a great freedom. The triptych was good; it had been several months since she’d painted anything worth saving. 

“The drought is over,” she announced to her canvases, as she laid down her brush and began to hum.

January 12, 2024 21:23

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3 comments

Morgan Aloia
04:08 Jan 25, 2024

Hey hi! We got matched for the critique circle. I’ll share my first impressions, but please let me know if there’s anything I can help to clarify or if you’re looking for feedback on any specific points. Overall, this was a phenomenal arc to be pulled through. I really connected with the character, she felt very lived in. The motifs tied well into the themes, which is something I always find vital from a story of this scope. I usually try to use this space to suggest some aspect for improvement, but honestly nothing really jumped out at me...

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Alexis Araneta
13:59 Jan 24, 2024

My goodness ! What a treat this is. Apart from the fressia, something else is blossoming, and I love it. The imagery was stunning ! Amazing job !

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A. Torrecilha
15:55 Jan 22, 2024

This is incredibly beautiful. Love the imagery, the metaphors, the ending, all of it. Thank you for sharing with us

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