Civilised by Nature
M.T. O’Byrne (The Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
The problem with order, Albert thought, and knew, was that it demanded a constant vigil for its maintenance and engendered in its keeper an anxious expectation of ruin. That he had become that ruin, did not, therefore, surprise him. The manner of his ruination, however, did, for it was accomplished in the process of creating order in his garden; namely, through the dispatching of a weed that had gone unnoticed in his roof’s gutter and had, until very recently, felt itself impervious to his pottering. Now it wilted in his clenched fist, but still irritated, Albert thought, for its remover lay broken on the ground by a ladder on which sat a robin, cocking its head from side to side.
The robin seemed intrigued and was so bold as to hop nearer to the prostrate Albert, where it whistled in some unknown language, which was, perhaps, an entreaty for him, as a man, to stand. When he did not, the robin puffed up its breast, cocked its head, and with a sigh, flew away.
Albert craned his neck to see after the bird and in so doing caused a twinge in his lower back. This pain reminded him of his situation, which was intolerable, and, he thought, unseemly. He attempted to roll onto his back, but could not, for his legs were still unresponsive. He let out the merest of laughs and imagined that if his late wife, Cora, could see him now that she would declare that she had no sympathy for his predicament and would, instead, simply remind him that an eighty year-old man had no business climbing ladders.
Holding on to the ladder, he attempted yet again to turn himself over. The pain was excruciating and he screamed so loudly that when he had managed to get himself onto his back, he lay there, staring at the sky, grimacing, thinking that surely such a scream would bring the help he so desperately desired. But no such aid was apparent, either to his ears, or, when he had raised himself up onto his elbows, to his eyes. He was all alone, but for the robin that returned with a mealy worm between its beak as offering, Albert thought, for him.
Dear, sweet bird, Albert thought, I’ll need more than a worm to right myself from this, but took the worm in any case and watched as it wriggled in his hand, alive but oblivious.
The robin flew away to the fence that divided Albert’s garden from the empty churchyard beyond. And there it whistled to a solitary cloud that appeared arrested in the sky by its song.
The sky— “the illimitable sky”, Albert had said to Cora on their first viewing of the house—was what had led Albert to fall so in love with the property all those years ago. Here was a place, he had thought, where a man could settle until his last days and while away his hours with gardening and observation.
The only thing, however, that Cora had observed was that the house was right next to a church and its graveyard. In the first two years of their occupation she had been adamant that the house had been haunted, that ghosts had roamed the grounds and that they had wilfully unpegged her washing from the line so that shirts and trousers, billowing with baleful beings—“with air,” Albert had said; “with spirits,” Cora had insisted, and placed her hands on her hips—had walked their clothes off and over the back fence into paddocks where they had filled cows with terror and turned their milk sour as a consequence. But habituation and a change in the local weather patterns seemed either to mollify the ghosts, or cure Cora of her concerns, and she and Albert settled down into a comfortable existence punctuated only by visiting children, grandchildren, and real estate agents gleefully resistant to rejection.
There were to be no visitors today, however, Albert thought, and decided that he must attempt something, that he could not simply lie on the ground and wait for a rescue. He looked back at the door to his kitchen and decided that he would be able to get himself inside the house and call for an ambulance. Using only his arms, he inched his way to the door and, after trying first with his left, with his right hand grasped the door handle and attempted to open the door. But the door was locked.
Of course, the door was locked, Albert thought, and, lowering himself to the ground, put his hand inside his pocket to retrieve the key. On finding nothing but lint and a spare button, he rummaged deeper in case the key had sequestered itself into a fold of his trouser pocket or become confused with spare change. With every pocket searched, and with all the change in a line on the ground, it was obvious to Albert that the key had fallen out in his fall from the ladder. He sat up on his elbows and surveyed his near surrounds: the ladder, broken; the worm, wriggling its way to sanctuary in a nearby garden bed; and his pocket handkerchief, by the table leg.
In must be in the handkerchief, he thought, and dragged himself towards it. He shook it, but no key tumbled free. He unfolded it, held it up to the late afternoon sun and, only then convinced that it contained nothing, wiped the sweat from his face and laid his head back down. The robin was no longer singing and the sky was cloud free.
He would, he thought, like to attempt some arduous journey on his back up by the side of the house, but then recalled how he had had the sides fenced off in order to keep out mischievous children from the nearby estate. He wished, now, only that their curiosity might convince them that a fencing meant something secret lay beyond, something which was worth risking the wrath of an angry old man, and nevertheless attempt a trespass.
He imagined that these errant children were there now, daring one another to climb over, or, with tiny hands, making dynamite, scissors, paper or rock to see who should go first. As a consequence of this imagining, he yelled out: “I’m here. Help me! Somebody.” But his cry was rather feeble and served only to remind him of just how frail he had become. He called out again, but towards the churchyard, hoping to catch the ear of some attentive parishioner or mourner, but in reply came only a caw of crows, which then emerged as a murder on the fence, became in flight the dark interstices of yew trees, and finally the shadows in a belfry, leaving behind them only the inattentive headstones of the dead.
I’ll die, Albert thought, and wondered how it was that a man as careful as he could find himself in such a dire situation. Folly, he thought, in climbing the ladder and reaching too far out. But what of the key? He remembered placing his keys in his jacket pocket, bringing out a pitcher of tea, returning for a plate of sandwiches, and then fetching the radio. He recounted each of his movements with his fingers serving as conductors of his thoughts: “After putting the radio on the table,” he said to himself, “I switched it on and tuned it to the station. Then, I—” But he could not think what he had done after that and was appalled at his lack of recall.
Despite his current predicament, he decided that he should not let it serve as an excuse for him to sit so dishevelled upon the ground. He lifted all his weight with his arms and made his way to the table and chairs upon the deck. Although he could not manage to pull himself up into a chair, he did fetch down the pitcher and a glass and pour himself some tea, which revitalised him. But being so restored, he became aware of an awful smell, and looking upon his trousers noticed a wet patch. He was disgusted with himself; the whole affair was so unbecoming. Earlier in the day, he had gone to such great efforts to neaten his garden and to lay out a service of tea and sandwiches, the whole scene demonstrative of a civilised world. And now, he thought, this, this indignity.
He turned on the radio – five o’clock, the announcer relayed. There were still several hours of sunlight left, Albert thought, and perhaps someone would come by. Not his children, of course, they were abroad and not due to visit until December. Inside, the phone might ring but the lack of an answer would not lead to concern for its owner. The radio station began disgorging jazz, a type of discordance Albert could not abide and so he switched the radio off.
He looked upon his garden and felt more at ease. Cora used to tell him that he cared more for his garden than he did for her. But he knew she had loved the garden as much as he and would always admire the flowers he cut for her and lovingly wash the vegetables he would bring into the kitchen, his face beaming with the pride of a hunter rather than a collector.
“You know, I’m not that keen on radishes,” she would say every summer. “I know you like them, which is just as well as there are hundreds of them.”
While gazing upon trees and shrubs, he noticed a broad-leaved willow herb growing by the apple tree. Why he had not seen this wild invader before he could not say, but, even in his lamentable situation, he found himself angered by its presence and felt compelled to spare no effort in its removal. On his back, and with his legs dragging behind him, he made his way ever so slowly across the lawn on his elbows. The heat was still in the day and his efforts exhausted him. In the middle of the lawn, sweat beading on his face, he collapsed.
“I’ll just rest here a little while, Cora,” he said out loud. “Catch my breath.” Lying with his arms out to the side, staring up at the sky, he recalled Prince Andrei wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz.
Rousing himself from recollection, he made his way with a prodigious effort to the apple tree and then to the weed that had set him in motion. He rudely grasped the willow herb, wrenched it from the ground, shook its roots of soil and flung it upon the lawn where the sun would cause it to quickly wither. Exhausted, he lay upon the earth and looked up at the sky through the branches of the apple tree. The fruit hung temptingly out of reach and reminded him of his growing hunger.
He awoke as the sun was setting. He took a start when he opened his eyes and then, remembering his predicament, wondered how long it would be before someone noticed him missing. It could be days, he thought. Hoping his paralysis had been a figment of his imagination, he again tried to move his legs, but to no avail. He sat up as best he could against the narrow trunk of the apple tree and looked upon his lifeless limbs with despair. He sighed and undid his tie and let it dangle about his neck.
After the sun had set, the air grew colder and he was thankful that he had put on his jacket. Through the branches, he saw Hesperus glinting. How many years had it been since he had lain beneath the stars, let alone looked on them, he wondered.
“It was on the Coronia,” he recollected Cora saying. “May 1963, in the Dardanelles.”
On board that green goddess cruise of the Mediterranean, he and Cora had lain alone on deck chairs, drawing constellations in the night sky with their fingers.
“You know, for someone so fastidious, you can be quite a romantic,” Cora had said to him.
Back then, he hadn’t known the names of the stars, but had marvelled upon them none the less.
Albert spent an uncomfortable night beneath the apple tree. At one stage, woken by pain, he thought he heard the wandering voice of a cuckoo, but was delirious and thus could not be sure. From time to time, he would attempt to roll on to his side, only to remember that such a manoeuvre required the use of one’s legs. By the morning, he was stiff and waited impatiently for the sun to rise and warm his body.
Albert managed to retrieve a small harvest of carrots from his now exhausted vegetable garden. He retreated to the relative cool of the apple tree and ate avidly while watching a redstart catch insects on the wing. In the afternoon, still hungry and now desperately thirsty, he attempted to reach one of the lower branches of the tree so that he might dislodge an apple, but the lowest branch was just out of reach.
Behind him, he noticed exploratory canes from the graveyard blackberry bush feel their way blindly over his fence as if in search of something new to entangle. How many times had he complained to the church about wild blackberries growing on their grounds? “If a church cannot free itself of such a pernicious plant,” he had said to the new priest just after he arrived, “then what hope is there for order and rectitude in this world?”
On his second night, he became feverish and would wake in fits of panic. In one of his tenebrous dreams someone touched his leg. He felt it as if it were real, but remembered that his legs were paralysed and tried to ignore the sensation. Then he heard Cora’s voice, but did not dare open his eyes, lest reality prove the spoiler of his imaginings.
“You must be tired, lying out here all these nights on your own,” Cora said.
Nights? he thought, was it not just the second night?
“You should eat this apple and get back your strength,” she continued.
He smelt an apple nearby and sniffed deeply its sweet aroma.
“It’ll rain soon, Albert. You won’t be thirsty anymore.”
He felt her hand upon his leg and with her touch the pain in his lower back disappeared. Against his better judgment, he opened his eyes to see a most wondrous sight: a woman—not Cora—luminous and elemental. She handed him an apple, into which fruit he bit ravenously until he had eaten even the core. Holding his hand, she helped him to stand up.
“My legs are working again. Look!”
The woman smiled as she led him into the centre of the garden.
“Who are you?” he asked, re-tying his tie.
“I’m Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees,” she said, handing Albert another apple.
When he woke, he found himself still under the apple tree, his legs as lifeless as the ground beneath the yew tree. Beside him were two red apples, which must have fallen off in the night. Excitedly, he ate them both and then felt sick, but the energy they gave him meant he could cross the garden to the table where the radio, the empty pitcher and the glass still lay.
He managed the journey quite well. The radio was dead; he must have left it on, though he remembered switching it off. Looking down at his body, it seemed more emaciated than ever. He smelt of wet leaves.
For the first time in days he looked upon the entire garden. Near the yew tree, a thistle had taken root. That was not all: the vegetable patch was covered in sorrel, and willow herb had found purchase among the long grass. Worst of all, was that the blackberry bush had reached so decisively into his garden it appeared to have taken root and now wended its way among the mother-in-law’s tongue. Surveying this assault upon his garden, Albert saw only an asymmetrical nightmare – a coalesced wilderness of twiggy monsters from his childhood dreams.
And though it rankled all his civilised sensibilities, for the sake of his own survival he felt he had to accommodate to its wild ways. He dragged himself towards the blackberry bush with pitcher in hand and filled it nearly to the brim with berries. Next he collected the flowers and leaves of some nasturtiums and stuffed them into his pockets. He found a worm and was about to eat it when a robin landed nearby. He held the worm out for it to take, but surprised himself when he snatched the bird. Holding it tight in his hand, he felt its tiny heart beating against his palm. He thought of eating the robin. A civilised man would never do such a thing, but he was Ishmael now and the thought of the meagre meat upon this bird recovered in him an ignoble appetite. But the rapid beating of the bird’s heart begged a mercy, which spoke against his hunger. Albert released his grip and the bird flew away.
Despite his cornucopia of the wild, the eating of the found food provided only momentary relief from his malaise. He had forgotten how long he had been castaway, but it had been long enough that his lack of manners and morals spoke of some latent savagery, some pre-agricultural being, which tended neither land nor self. He had no decency now. His trousers were torn away from his peregrinations about the garden and his skinny, lifeless legs were pitifully exposed. His hands were nearly black with dirt and his once crisp, white shirt was so mottled it now looked like the trunk of the apple tree. He surveyed this miserable form, wondered that it had survived this long, and then sobbed uncontrollably. The tears obscured the world and he slumped upon the ground.
When he could cry no more, he spoke plaintively to his imagined wife about his woes. He told her that he thought the world had become a cataract on his rational mind. Then, in a burst of anger, he damned this irrational world: “Damn you! You, savage, savage world, you—”
“William, is that you?” a woman’s voice asked from somewhere behind.
Albert, realising that this was the voice of Mrs Greenhalgh, tried to yell out for help, but his voice was little more than a whisper.
“William, is that you?” Mrs Greenhalgh asked.
Sitting up straight against the tree trunk, and mustering all his strength, he said: “Mrs Greenhalgh, it’s me, Albert. I need your help.”
“Albert? William’s brother Albert? Albert?”
“No, it’s Albert. I’ve hurt my legs in the garden. Call someone!”
“Hurt your legs in the garden? I don’t remember you ever having done that now, Albert. May I speak to my William? Is he all right? Tell him I miss him.”
“No, Mrs Greenhalgh, it’s me over here in the garden.” But Albert’s words grew less distinct. He dragged himself to the fence and then hit against it with his fist. “It’s me, Albert.”
“Leave me alone!” Mrs Greenhalgh demanded. “I never did like your manners, Albert. Go back, do you hear! Go back, spirit!”
Muttering inanities to herself, Mrs Greenhalgh left the churchyard. Albert continued to beat against the fence for several minutes in the hope of attracting the attention of some less superstitious being. Spent of energy, and lacking hope that Mrs Greenhalgh would see reason and tell someone of her experience, he dragged himself back to the tree.
In the night he was awoken by an insatiable thirst. The berries he had consumed in the late afternoon had provided some respite, but now his mouth was so dry he could hardly part his lips. A strong, warm wind made his thirst even keener. Then a drop of water fell upon his face and a powerful desire to live came over him. Albert heard the yew creaking and saw the branches of the apple tree sway wildly. A crack of thunder portended a storm and Albert hoped it would deliver more rain.
Just as he had ensured his pitcher was upright, a strong gust blew an apple down, which caused the pitcher to unbalance. As he retrieved the apple and righted the pitcher, a squall brought behind it a near horizontal sheet of rain. Each drop made its way effortlessly through the branches of the apple tree. Before long, the pitcher was overflowing. Albert drank greedily, replacing the pitcher to gather more rainwater after each quenching. The rain renewed his senses, which also made him aware of how cold he was becoming. He shivered uncontrollably, wrapped his jacket tight and yet felt no warmer. The storm sent debris flying. Trees creaked like timbered ships at anchor. Branches somewhere snapped. Albert thought he saw a man at the bottom of the garden chopping wood, but so incongruous was this phantasm that he paid it no mind.
“Do you remember,” he heard Cora ask, “that time we were caught in a storm at Siwa oasis?”
Albert listened to his verisimilar wife, but found no energy to reply.
“It had been such a hot day. And then the sky opened up and we were soaked to the bone. How we laughed at the irony of being drenched in the desert.”
Albert smiled wanly at this recollection. He attempted to say his wife’s name aloud as if the mere sound of it would restore him, but the enervate slightness of his voice only served to confirm in his mind the attenuation of his form. It was as if he had heard someone else’s voice. Now, he thought, I will surely die.
His constitution, however, must have been stronger than he had supposed as the next morning he found himself lying in the long grass of his garden looking into the face of a milking cow. The animal licked his forehead and then stood over him. He could not remember when or how he had clawed his way to this place and was only barely aware of hearing a woman in the night. And now a cow had entered his garden – probably through a hole in the fence caused by the storm, he thought.
Albert reached up and tried to push it away, but it only came nearer. The cow’s bloated udders swayed above his head. Without even considering if it were possible, or even whether he should, he raised himself onto his arms and took one of the cow’s teats into his mouth. Sucking as hard as he could, and after attempting several different methods, he tasted the cow’s sweet, warm milk and drank with gusto. The cow did not move until he was finished. Albert lay back down and through the grass and willow herb watched the cow lumber away.
As he rested there, he noticed something metal, glinting in the grass. He reached out towards it, thumbed its edge and then, gaining a grip, brought it before his face. It was the key. He laughed. Why had he not seen it on that first day, that first day when his garden was still a garden and the grass was trimmed and neat? He did not know, but thought only of making it back to the house.
Although the milk had revitalised him, he was still weak; it was only with a considerable effort that he managed to get himself into a position that would enable him to drag his cadaverous body to the back of the house. Over the course of several hours, he dragged himself through the grass. The summer sun dried out what was left of his clothing, but then warmed his body so much that every inch of progress was made at the expense of his body’s meagre reserves. Some time after the sun had reached its zenith, he decided he needed shade to recover his senses. Flailing in delirium, writhing in pain, he struggled to the base of the apple tree, whereupon he passed out.
Towards dusk of that same day, he listened to a coal tit, a bird he had not heard in Buckland for a long time. Its song made him nostalgic. He recalled playing cards with Cora and drinking pink gins. These thoughts overwhelmed him with happiness and he felt a smile occupy his whole face. This smile, which was born of such a pleasant remembrance, soon coloured his view of the environment: he noted the veins on a sunlit leaf; contemplated what mathematical properties could be discovered in a blackberry; and listened to the wind in the trees—the sound of which he called mordros, even though mordros was Cornish for the sound of the sea.
On sitting up against the trunk of the apple tree, he looked upon his now wild garden with different eyes. The willow herb flower filled the once uniform lawn with splashes of purple, and thistles stood regally in ground he had struggled to make fertile. He saw birds long absent roost on branches and regarded the exquisite beauty of an elephant hawk moth that had alighted upon his arm, its coppery wings and pink swatches the very definition of symmetry.
The whole garden filled with these moths so that it seemed as if he were some passenger in an ancient flying craft; the fluttering of their wings reverberated in his mind as propellers. When they all ascended into the sky at once, he felt as if he were lifted from the ground and become a part of their swarm. He closed his eyes and felt the soft flap of their powdery wings against his skin.
Long after the moths had gone, Albert kept his eyes closed and held fast in his memory their visitation. He felt a pleasant congruity with his garden—this new, but strangely familiar wilderness—a feeling he had never known when he had curbed its every errant proclivity, when he had stood in the penumbra of its growth, waiting to prune, break and bend it to his civilised will. Now, without even opening his eyes, he sensed the garden’s essential nature, knew what it was doing. When he felt a strong breeze upon his face, he saw exactly how the yew bent, and how the perfume and pollen of various flowers mingled in the air like a terrestrial, coral spawning, and heard what he supposed were the hermetic ramblings of ancient trees.
And even though the means to his salvation lay like a talisman in his clenched hand, he felt no urgent need to leave. On his shoes, he marvelled to see fungi grow from spores, and by his heel, he watched worms wad soil into castings. He witnessed flowers close their petals and heard birds flit among the hedgerows. So acquainted had he become with this new world and its inhabitants, with the minutiae of its life, that he could not tell whether his experience was his own or that of some omniscient being, which had allowed him to observe all the irrational quiddities of the natural world at a single point in time. Thus enlightened, the lines disappeared from his face, he reached out, as if to some remembered figure, smiled, and let the key fall from his hand.
M.T. O’Byrne is an Australian writer currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters. He has previously been published in The Westerly and Black Denim Lit.