The barge, magnificent barge, a jewel cresting upon the high seas those thirty to forty years when the weather was still a true marvel, when one could see stars at noon, when the rare clouds were so fine and gauze-like and so much more transparent to moons, when rains were frank and without whining drizzle and cleared without lingering-such was the bright and empty space we sailed across seemingly to no end, and where my simple chores could have gone on for days and days without me minding-there could never be too many decks to sweep and wash, too many sails to mend, too many windows to clean amid that everlasting radiance. I remember the morning, if it is the one, that I brought the dishpan up from the galley in order to wash the dishes out in the rising sun and cool breeze of the stern deck, the galley being hot and steamy and infested with one of our infrequent plagues of crickets and cockroaches. Unguentine knew about them, would be down there this very moment unleashing the domestic snakes. By noon the galley would be all cleaned out and the reptiles, fat and lethargic, put back in their cages out of my sight. Are you sure? I always asked. Did you count them? You checked the dark corners to make sure they did no breeding down there? He would nod reassuringly. Meanwhile I went on with the dishes, clearing them off the table and tossing the scraps overboard into the water of our fresh-water lake fluorescent green with strands of algae, the water-cress and waterlilies where perched and floated heavy, complacent bullfrogs with fast tongues, strange body of water which swelled and shrank in size according to some principle I never grasped, changes in temperature perhaps. But the air, which had seemed clear and fresh before I went below deck for the dishpan, now was gathering up a humid haze, tarnishing the sea beyond our lake with a scum-like effect such as I could not remember having seen in years; or in the drowsiness of early morning I had simply not noticed: perhaps it had even been with us for days. I was out of time. I hadn’t slept well the night before, had mistakenly attempted a midnight stroll through the gardens in the dark only to walk right into a field of ripe peaches and apricots fallen on the ground, the awful squishing noises beneath my bare feet, the slime and stickiness, and from which I finally ran slipping and screaming to the lawn where I was able to light a candle and hose myself off. Why I refused to eat any fruit that morning. Our abundance at times was gagging. I was grown too plump anyway, though it was all still firm this body of mine, spangled with the reflections of wavelets in the dishpan, naked in the sun, every bone and muscle ceaselessly active and fresh, my skin tanned to a glowing sienna with only a vein surfacing here and there near a breast, a wrist, an instep, to indicate the warm flood which sometimes seemed to flow out and beyond, to feed the rainbow colours of it ale dishpan and stern deck, our lake, the sea, back to the sun.
Unguentine was in his prime those days, he was more present, more carnal, his body exuding the manly aromas of ripe glands so strongly I could nose out his shifts in mood, the nature of his work, for hours at a time even though he might be at the far end of the barge. He never spoke, no longer wrote me notes. I didn’t need them. I would read his face and body, and he mine, to know what thoughts were to traverse the narrow band of air which separated our flesh. From a hand lying loosely on the table, palm nearly exposed, perhaps trembling slightly with the pulse within, I heard repose and the silence of no thought. From the half-tightened fist seeming to indicate rest but being only an interlude, I heard the chatter of little plans before he would spring to his feet and slip into the garden-to do God knows what, for our trees and flowers and vegetables grew by themselves in a weedless, springy humus which needed no tending beyond the regular harvests that only permitted them to grow more, did not empty the garden, did not ravish it. We had too much, in fact. Often while pulling up a head of lettuce and a few carrots and onions for the simple salad-dinner we would have that night, I wearied at the thought of what we might possibly do with those rows upon rows of vegetables which would not stop growing and which we mainly fed to the chickens and goats, only to be swamped with eggs and milk and cupboards crammed with cheeses-dumped finally overboard to feed the fish. The balance of nature we carried about with us wherever we sailed was so perfect, so precise that were Unguentine and I to leave it all for ten years, say on some excursion to land at last, upon our return we would find nothing changed, perhaps only the trees grown a little higher, hens a different colour, the cold and glassy stare of another goat or two. Even, days like this, sky becoming whiter and the air more humid, I felt pressed down by the thought we might be intruders on this barge, for one could not sink a hoe into our earth without slicing up at least half a dozen earthworms and grubs, and then, that done, be surrounded by a gathering of robins anxious to feast. Flies would hatch in the compost heap and live long enough to lay more eggs before being pounced on by spiders, snatched up by swallows; and then the visitations of hawks and shrikes that thinned the swallows and sparrows and lizards and frogs while we watched, perhaps only watched. I knew the necessity, our carrots and onions, peaches and cream; yet sometimes I wished it would simply all cease.
I had just finished washing the dishes when I heard an awful clatter from the bow. I thought for a moment we had run aground or collided with some metallic debris-until I recognized it as the long-unfamiliar sound of the anchor being lowered. A few minutes later the clatter resumed, shaking the barge stem to stern, followed by the lowering of the second anchor: we had two. A flush of annoyance flooded over me. Here? In this scummy sea with its haze-filled sky? No doubt Unguentine had his reasons, repairs to be made on the hull, the rudder adjusted. Still, he might have waited until we had reached a more pleasant climate. The barge had been in continual motion so long that I now felt quite dizzy and had to go below deck to lie down in our bedroom where the only living, crawling thing was myself, in the silent darkness. I could become oppressed by the incessant noises of things growing and dropping up there, the busy chatter of birds and gnawing of insects; it was as if all the creatures had flown inside my head to bat about there, to become brain cells spluttering trivial messages at each other, back and forth, to no end. I slept, however. When I emerged several hours later, refreshed by a dreamless time below, an old excitement was returning to me as I stepped into the gardens again-and saw Unguentine wrestling with the trunk of the Plane Tree Judith. I heard a crack, saw a bluish glint of metal. Unguentine sprang away from the tree-trunk. He must have seen me then; he waved his arms violently, and I turned and ran, pursued by a hissing roar that gave way to a thunderous crash. From all over the barge came the rising crescendo of livestock in panic; birds, flushed from their haunts and seeking to rise to the safety of open sky, fluttered and banged against the glass of the dome. I had taken shelter behind the Fir Irene, now peeped out. The Plane Tree [udithlay prone all over the lawn, her crown staring me in the face. Beyond, through leaves drooping at unaccustomed angles, Unguentine stood leaning against an axe, body glistening with sweat.
I approached him. At his feet, a huge saw, wedges.
A little pruning, my dear? Thinning things out a bit? Perhaps such things I asked him, whether I spoke them or not as I gazed down at my favourite tree, into whose foliage I had often peered from atop the dome, into the soft and changing greens, when I was weary of looking at the harsh glitter of the sea. He must have known that. He must have heard the little cries within my heart even as he stepped away from me, dragging his tools behind him, granting me one long glance before he raised the axe to limb the fallen tree, eyes clouded and narrowed with a shadowy determination I had never seen in him, or with a sadness I thought we had forever chased from our lives. I felt a sudden lassitude, exhaustion. I knew somehow then that the Plane Tree Judith would not be the last. Something had happened. I could not understand those garbled noises that came from within his heaving body-if there was anything to be heard beyond the frantic stretch and pull of muscles, the squeak of joints, a heart pounding furiously. That day and the next and beyond, despite the sweltering temperatures of the tropical sea where we lay anchored, he cut down, limbed and sawed up the other plane tree, the Fir Irene, the Beech Cynthia, the stately Elm Myra, all the fruit trees but two; and, with the wrenching crack of each falling trunk, another flower bed, another shrub, another vine was smashed and battered to the ground; a duck was killed in one of the falls, the chickens gave up laying. Gritting my teeth to hold in a somehow angerless hysteria, I helped rake up leave and toss branches overboard until I could no longer bear it and went below deck wondering how I would ever be able to set foot in the gardens again. It was impossible to believe: to ruin so utterly the work of thirty to forty years in ten days? It was beyond reason, beyond madness.
Was this Unguentine, my Unguentine of the flowing white hair and yellow beard who had tended the gardens into all their magnificence? How could I watch the axe raised above his head and warmly feel his whole body tensed and poised for a perfectly delivered slice, the blur of a sudden movement, the blow, yellow chip spinning away-how could I still follow his every gesture with such fascination, then to collapse with trembling at the thought of what he was actually carrying out? He was cutting wood, I tried to tell myself, only cutting wood, for we might be sailing soon to colder seas and would need heat, fat logs for the fireplace, Irene, kindling, Cynthia. Or, the trees were being cut down, but not by Unguentine: it was some other, someone else, another man whom I had never personally met, never wished to.
He left me alone in my seclusion. He prepared my meals in the galley and set them on a tray in front of the bedroom door, adding every other night a pair of clean sheets, for even the normally cool depths of the barge were infected with the oppressive heat; I could open the porthole only at midnight to catch a brief, cool breeze that sprang up about then. Days I numbly watched the sickly sea through glass and longed for the moment when the barge would sink with a rush of waves and broken glass and settle to a quiet place below, waveless, dark, cold, as surely it would have to some day: the sooner the better. I stripped the bedroom of all its furnishings except the bed, a pitcher of water, a basin, and stuffed everything through the porthole in the middle of the night, rugs, tapestries, hangings I had once spent months weaving. For the first time in years I wanted Unguentine to come to me, explain, soothe me with torrents of words-not that any of it could undo what had been done, but only for the comfort of another voice until the intoxication of words might lead us on to do what little remained to be done, if anything, and face the earth and leaves and branches as they were, without noise, purely, quietly. I wove happy fantasies of how he would replant all the trees with fresh saplings, and we would watch, them grow high again, twice as fast as before; again to be cut, again to grow. I ventured into dreams of setting foot on an empty beach with white sands, but withdrew after a brief visit filled with vertigo and a handful of small seashells, useless souvenirs, for now, with so many years at sea, I knew I could live no other way than what had been if I were to live at all, with the wind through the trees and the thirst of the prow for endless waves.
When, two weeks later, my solitude having placed me in a state of resignation in which I thought I could bear anything, Unguentine strode through the bedroom door with bright eyes and a smile that seemed to indicate nothing had ever happened—I burst into tears and fiercely wished nothing ever had. We embraced. I apologized for having stripped the bedroom, chattered on about this and that, old conversations, ancient words that uncontrollably came across the years and back to me. He didn’t seem to mind. Soon I was following him upstairs towards the gardens. I hadn’t wanted to go, not so quickly. I wondered whether it was really my Unguentine I was behind, or some arrogant, hirsute creature whose biped tramping set the whole staircase to clattering. I dreaded the first look. Desert? Dustbowl? Bomb crater? Unaccustomed tothe flood of bright light beneath the dome, I was to wander around uncomprehending a half hour until his gestures and demonstrations made clear what he had done. A few trees he had spared; why I didn’t know, no more than I knew why he had cut the others down, why he had begun replacing them with ones of his own creation, dry and brittle mimics which yet caught the contour of trunk and branch framework, the traceries of twig, needle, bud-why this fake forestry? I was stunned. Upon armatures of steel rod he had woven coils of rope fifty and sixty feet into the air, padded them with kapok and foam rubber, glued and stitched them up with simulated barks of dried and shredded kelp, bound and applied in the manner of papier-macho. The leaves, plastic, of a two-ply lamination enclosing a liquid solution that gave them a flickering motion in breezes and winds and an uncanny translucence, almost too leaf-like. The tools and materials of his handiwork littered the remains of the living garden; I saw petunias gasping for air from beneath piles of iron rod, grapes bleeding under heaps of half-rotted rope; upended tree stumps, sacks of cement, gaping holes in the lawn where were to be sunk the steel roots of the next crop of artificial trees. I leaned on him repeatedly, his warm flesh, and sobbed; to be with him again, but also at these, his monstrosities.
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