She is lifting the golden lid of a recycling bin with the sleeve of her jumper when the song of a siren echoes through the neighbourhood. Christina lets the lid fall. The bin topples over into the gutter, wheels spinning. Her mother appears in the front garden like an apparition, feet tangled in the garden hose. Her eyes listless as they follow the sound. She is rolling an olive pit over her tongue and between her teeth.
‘What is this?’
Christina shakes her head. Beside her mother, their tomato plant has curled up like a wounded child, the leaves a burnt orange.
In her dreams, her mother finds home: olive trees and the leathered skin of her father’s palms.
‘Christina, when you take me to Greece?’
‘When I can take time off work.’
Her mother opened the pantry door and disappeared inside: the rustle of paper bags and the clink of glass jars.
‘Your papa said he would take me.’
‘We’re working on it, Mum. Me and Alex, we’ll take you soon.’
‘I would like for that.’
Her mother reemerged with a patterned olive leaf apron hanging loosely from her neck, waving an unopened jar of tomato paste.
‘Use your words, Mum. Use your words,’ she said as she took the jar. The skin of her mother’s hands grated against her own. The click of the jar lid suppressed in Christina’s hands.
‘Tell us the story of the flowers,’ Alex and Christina would ask their father. Through his scattered English and across multiple interrogations they had pieced together the story of their parents’ meeting. It became somewhat more fanciful every time they recounted it. They would tell the story to one another in moments of boredom – lying across from one another on their beds on the nights they weren’t allowed to watch the TV. And later, in moments of sadness, sitting across from one another at their parent’s small circular dining table – the TV quietly chatting in the background – as they recollected the story in an attempt to bring it back to life.
Within a small village town on the island of Crete, a young man had tended his father’s garden every two days. Christos could have made a career out of it. In bloom, their garden could be smelt from the other side of town, the scent snaking its way along the narrow dirt road to every doorway.
On a day that seemed no more significant than any other, he was tending to his finest flowers. The sweet ‘aster’ flowers, from the Ancient Greek word for star. Christos thought that there was almost something magical about the way they were formed. His eyes were caught in the golden centre of one particularly bright violet flower when he heard the sigh of a woman. He stood suddenly, and beyond the stars in his eyes, he saw her, the body of a woman, all black hair and unmoving, one languid hand outstretched towards a box of green olives spilt across the dirt road. He ran out to her, and, olives underfoot, he lifted her from the road. Wine-coloured dust shook itself free of her clothes and as he pulled her upwards towards him, she began to cry.
Later, they washed the olives together at his kitchen sink, contemplating the small pieces of black flesh and stone falling between the other’s fingers.
‘I wonder what they said to one another that day.’
‘Did you sleep last night?’
‘No. Mum was up all night wandering through the house, cooking, cleaning.’
Peeling back the bedroom curtain, Christina watched her mother. Her stomach was pushed up against the wooden fence, trying to talk to the neighbour on the other side. Her mother’s arms moved like a dancer’s, a hose leaking water in one hand, her slippers coloured by wet grass.
‘She still hasn’t said much, Alex.’
‘You just stay home with her. I’ll pick up the flowers.’
‘Make sure you’re there before lunch, I don’t want to have to go on a full stomach, you know what she’s like.’
Her brother hung up, but she kept her ear to the phone, listening to the emptiness on the other side. The neighbour had left. Her mother stood watching the water drip from the ends of her fingers.
Alex and Christina found their mother dancing in the living room one night, her hair a wispy plume of black and grey roots, her dressing gown slipping down her shoulders. They imagined their papa, distilled in her arms, leading her across a glistening stage, tsks departing from the back of his throat: the sounds he made when their mother wasn’t doing something quite right. Their father’s language was always filled with a series of noises substituted for real words. He could sometimes last a whole day without saying anything.
When she spun around to find her children, her dressing gown fell to the floor.
‘Your papa was best dancer in all of Crete.’
They pretended it was the first time she had told them and sat with her on the couch until she fell asleep, listening to her speaking in fragments through the dark and into the light.
A mother with a child on her hip emerges from a house across the road with the bewildered expression of an animal being herded through a paddock. Christina can see people gathering and she steps over the bin lying in the gutter.
‘Strange day for sirens.’ Christina turns to her mother, her eyes aglow.
‘Where is Alex?’
‘We need to go soon,’ her mother says, ‘We need flowers.’
‘Yes, Mum. Alex will be here soon.’
Their mother never told them what happened to their papa in the mountains all those years ago. But they came to understand how he could use a scythe so well, appearing like Death in the corner of the garden, swinging it back and forth across the grass. His arms moving like a machine. One day he told them that weeding their mother’s garden was like fighting the second resistance. But they were too young to understand what that meant.
‘Why don’t you just use a mower like a normal person, papa?’ they would ask him years later. He would just tsk and shake his head. The smell of cut grass would linger in the cotton of his shirt as he stood by the kitchen window looking out over the complete and precise lawn.
‘Why is he always so sad?’ they would ask their mother.
‘Written in his skin,’ she always said.
Two days after it happened, Christina found her mother sitting in her bedroom rolling a gold watch over her fingers.
‘What did you and papa ever talk about?’
‘I waited to hear him speak. Like hanging from the edge of a mountain.’ She stood slowly, dust falling from her apron, and placed the watch inside the dresser. ‘So I would talk.’
‘What did you talk to him about?’
‘My papa’s olive trees. How I wanted to be a singer. That I miss Crete and the colours the water makes. How tomatoes don’t taste the same here.’
She looked at herself in the mirror, tucking a grey strand of hair in amongst the dyed black plume.
‘He tell me that he like the way I speak. Like a dream he once had, before the war.’ Her mother turned to the doorway, leaving the dresser drawer slightly ajar. Christina listened to the scuffing of her mother’s footsteps as she walked to the other end of the house.
Christina takes her mother’s hand and they begin to edge slowly towards the end of the street. Autumn has burned the leaves on the trees, showering the footpath with shadows.
‘I can smell flowers.’ Her mother lets go of her hand and walks in front. She is still wearing her slippers. Christina follows her fragile steps.The traffic has halted. Drivers are stepping out of their cars, doors hang open. In the reflection of a shop window, panicked lights flash.
In the last days, their mother had gone shopping for olives. She had gone all over the city, to markets, to Greek grocers. At home, she prepared one single bowl from the nine full containers of olives she had collected, dropping an equal amount of green and black, large and small, into the small blue bowl.
‘When I put the bowl under his nose, he remembers.’ She told her children. In the weeks that followed, they ate more olives than a whole Greek island could offer.
Across the road are the remnants of a florist’s display. Shards of terracotta and glass create patterns in the soil, rippling out across the concrete. Restrained by a police officer, Alex appears like a limp doll, his hands coated with reddened soil. He holds them out towards a woman in a green apron. She cowers behind a shelf of roses.
Christina runs to Alex. Clay fractures beneath her feet as she reaches out to her brother.
‘I ordered the stars weeks ago,’ he says, words falling away into the turmoil. ‘This day just won’t work without them.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Christina whispers, pulling her brother in close to her chest.
They collapse into each other muting the static of all they have been fighting against, blinded by the lights reflected in the glass. In front of their embraced bodies, flowers have spilled out onto the road to form a carpet of blushing colour, petals layer upon layer. They lead to the other side of the road, where, moving gently in the wind is their mother standing tall. Her arms outstretched, hair as black as a moonless night.
Image: Ismael Nieto