1. Thomas comes home.
Thomas walked across the city in his neat fatigues. The coast fell down to ocean through a changed landscape, and all around him citizens whispered and clung to one another like water molecules, and Thomas believed he could see through them. The cars parked along the road had turned into open-air cathedrals. Buttercups had tiptoed up through shattered cobblestones. Thomas, who had never wanted to hurt anybody, took off his heavy boots and walked barefoot. The ground curved into his footsteps.
And in the chemist, behind a plastic counter top, Julia sang to herself. She sang about bells ringing, and when the shop bell rang she looked up, pleased, to see her song come true. Thomas thought she looked like a clematis vine in her white smock. "Well," Julia said. "They sent you home?"
"We were all sent home," Thomas said. "Everyone was. Yours is the only shop open in the whole of Dublin."
Julia smiled, calmly. She said, "People need their medication."
2. Julia grew in a colder climate.
Julia came from a Norse country, where gods hung from trees like under-ripe fruit, and snow packed seedlings back into the earth. She came to Ireland to learn the names of beta-blockers and narcotic analgesics and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, to live in the quiet, inside the order of her well-stocked pantry, a chemical library. Julia had fistfuls of long, light hair.
Before Thomas joined the army, he had been a doctor in Accident and Emergency, stitching up wounds with a curved needle like a scythe, turning cracked bones into patchwork, listening to excuses. He and Julia were friends because they kept the most intimate secrets. When she told him to leave, Thomas left; he left to dress in camouflage and patch up careless soldiers as a medical officer, and all the time he was gone he wanted to send Julia his dog tags, the barest details of him to stare at her like twin mirrors. He never did. He kept his silence. He came home.
Julia's hands were cool and medicinal, but she smelled of water. She tasted like a rainforest. With her eyes closed, she looked like a lady in a reed boat, as though she were waiting to sail away.
3. The Irish Army has no green thumb.
Back in spring, daffodils and snowdrops had pressed out into the cold, and were sold in Mother's Day bouquets and paper bunches on the side of Grafton Street, and cherry blossoms draped over the trees. And after the daffodils came tulips, and then poppies, and bachelor's buttons and marigolds and cornflowers and carnations and bluebells, all at once. They grew the way smoke grows from a forest fire. They grew in gardens and parks and cemeteries and golf courses. After that, they shouldered up through concrete, splitting pavements. Roads burst apart. Vines worked their way inside houses, into plaster and drywall, breaking foundations. In the train stations, tree roots snaked around wheels and carriages, anchoring trains to the ground. Morning glory curled over power lines.
Thomas woke up one morning in a bed of creeping myrtle. The army, he discovered, did not know whether it was a natural disaster or an invasion. Thomas had visions of cohorts marching out onto the city armed with gardening gloves, shears, trowels, and knee pads, but instead he and the others were turned out of the barracks to drift home, aimless as dandelion clocks. Thomas collected his doctor's case and walked to Julia's chemist. "No one wants to talk about it," Julia said. "But no one wants to talk about anything else, either. People come in here to stock up as though it's the end of the world."
"Is that what you think?" Thomas asked.
"Yes," Julia said. "But I have thought that for a long time."
4. Thomas's first grace.
Five years ago Thomas had been engaged. Her name was Elizabeth, and she worked in an art gallery in Donnybrook, above the rush of the canal. Elizabeth was not like Julia, not at all: she wore delicate suits with high-heeled shoes and smelled expensive; she listened to the Pixies and The Cure in her neat silver car, but played Chopin for the gallery's customers; she cried at Childline ads on the television and smudged her eyeliner. Elizabeth had written her name on Thomas's bare chest with permanent marker one night, carefully, like an artist signing her favourite work. Thomas had wanted to run over the signature with a razorblade. Hold the ink under his skin forever.
Elizabeth left with a painter. Thomas thought if his heart would break, it would do it where Elizabeth had signed her name, and the letters would blow from his breastbone like sycamore seeds and take root somewhere else. He told Julia about Elizabeth. "What am I supposed to do?" he asked her, although it had all happened a long time ago. Julia, stocking shelves with pharmaceuticals, shrugged. "You aren't," she said. Later, he told Julia about Elizabeth's signature over his heart. Julia studied his bare chest. She looked up at him, like a slap. "I think you should go," she said.
5. Julia's dream.
Julia dreamed about her chemist shop. She dreamed that she was leaning on the counter, singing about bells, when Thomas came home from the army and looked at her as though she were a potion or a poultice. In her dream, Julia said, "You are sick."
"Yes," Thomas agreed.
"You want medicine."
"You shouldn't have come back," Julia told him, feeling the words fall from her mouth like cool stones. "You want me to make you better, but I have other things on my mind, Thomas, I have more important things on my mind. You want salvation without faith. Faith without surrender. I am very busy," Julia said.
In her dream, Thomas vaulted the counter easily, prowled down the neat rows of medications, his hands curled into clawed fists. "Stop," Julia said, panicking, but unable to make her voice sound anything other than calm and still. "Thomas, stop it. You're frightening them."
And he was frightening them, all her bright chemicals, and they rattled in their silver packages as he stalked past. His combat boots had been abandoned somewhere. Thomas went barefoot, padded feet and dewclaws. His shoulder blades jutted like shelves.
"There is nothing here to help you," Julia said. "Please leave. I have to alphabetise the benzodiazepines."
Thomas turned on her. He lifted his green army shirt, and Julia sighed and looked away, not wanting to see that scrawled signature. But Thomas took her chin in his fist. He pulled her towards him. Written on his chest were three new names. Julia read: Trazodone. Sertraline. Fluoxetine.
6. The last time around.
All those months ago Julia had kissed Thomas's hands, silky talcum and the taste of latex, as though he still held the scalpel or the needle. He smelled like sweat and disinfectant. Julia loved the courage of Thomas's presence. Its exclamation. He came to save lives, because he had been marked for it, because it had been tattooed across him, as though before he was born someone had called out Is anybody here a doctor? and Thomas, still mouthless, had answered Yes, I am, yes. and rushed out into the world to give his breath to strangers. And so his hands on her skin felt like a medical emergency. She grew more immediate. She gave him her breath.
When they lay in a tangle of clothes and bed sheets and legs and Julia's long hair, Thomas told Julia about Elizabeth, the one he had loved more than anything, the smaller heart beating inside his heart. He told her about the time Elizabeth had signed her name to him. How he wanted to be hers forever. Julia examined his chest. The ink was gone, but Thomas still wore Elizabeth's signature somewhere, and she was the one who had marked him; it was her name he laboured under, fruitless and ironic as arbeit macht frei, and every life he saved was just one more attempt to save himself. So Julia looked up at him, and she sent him away.
7. In past days.
In past days, the seasons were not fixed and scientific. They were whimsy, lust, fury. Spring was a tenuous matter. Gods came and went, and were capricious, and years ran through their hands like water. Their tempers were fickle. The corn king poured his blood into the cup of the earth, to make it kinder.
8. The world opens like an Easter egg.
Julia and Thomas went to Christ Church Cathedral. It seemed that everyone in Dublin had had the same idea, and they all stood uneasily pressed together. The church smelled like a greenhouse. Up in the tower, vines curled up thick rope, and the bells rang out a peal in C# major. The vault sprouted shoots and tall white flowers, bright as suns. Roses burst from the organ pipes. Thomas took Julia's hand.
A sound like a buzz saw echoed around the nave, and Strongbow climbed out of his tomb. His bones were held together with ivy and moss, and his eyes were periwinkles. He stepped across the cathedral on his whispering feet. Thomas moved backwards to let him through, but Strongbow's weathered arm brushed against him. It felt cool and dry as wax paper. Strongbow paused at the cathedral entrance, his great heart a flower bulb wrapped in crab grass, his pulse a river; then he set out, into the growing city. Julia slipped her hand from Thomas's hand.
Becca De La Rosa lives in Dublin, Ireland. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various places, including Behind the Wainscot, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy Magazine. She knows a lot about pharmaceuticals and not enough about flowers. Read more of her work online at www.beccadelarosa.com.
copyright © 2008, Becca De La Rosa
BECCA DE LA ROSA
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