Two flights of stairs led down from her Uncle Nick’s apartment in the City to a door at the bottom that opened up onto Jonah Street. Eight-year-old Annie stepped through it and turned to her right down the hill toward 21st avenue. She skipped lightly down the shallow grade, glad to be back outside.
She’d spent almost half an hour locked out in the foyer when she arrived. Her uncle was asleep again. The land lady downstairs finally poked her head through the door at the commotion and buzzed Annie in with an air of disgust.
Annie didn’t really care that he was asleep. It wasn’t really her uncle she’d come to visit. He’d left two notes, five dollars, and a key, sitting on the table for her. After reading the notes several times, and worrying the TV would make too much noise, she headed back out to find the real reason she visited so often. One of the notes, now pinched tightly between her fingers, flapped in the warm summer breeze as she skipped. She didn’t really need it. Mr. Lee, the Vietnamese owner of the liquor store on the corner of 21st, knew she was Uncle Nick’s niece. He would sell her the cigarettes without it.
Annie skipped to lighten her heart. Anxiety had been battering her nerves since before she ever caught the bus. It wasn’t over riding the bus alone or even over walking the streets alone. Don’t stop or talk with strangers. It was an easy rule to follow. Easy or not, the very fact that Annie had not followed that rule was the reason behind her anxiety that day.
Uncle Nick, was her mother’s brother, almost ten years younger, more like a big brother than an uncle. He lived alone in his upstairs flat, a few blocks from the small cabinet shop where he worked. He was unmarried, and when he found the time, Annie was the daughter he didn’t have. He seldom found the time. His habits kept him up nights and so her visits often found her sitting alone and bored, but that didn’t stop Annie from visiting. As I’ve mentioned, it wasn’t her uncle she’d come to visit.
A few blocks down Jonah Street, where the boxy residences gave way to the small shops that included her uncle’s, there was a small, narrow lot next to an out-of-place, converted two-story. In the lot, behind a wire fence just tall enough to keep dogs out, was a tiny guest house, more like a child’s playhouse than a home. It had small windows and a narrow front door and it was surrounded on both sides by a beautiful garden full of flowers, mostly roses, a surprise burst of nature, stubbornly defying the conquest of urban sprawl.
The first time Annie saw her, the pretty, young lady who gardened there immediately captured her curiosity. She wore a long blue dress with a matching coif from which a thin veil draped, casting blue shadows on her face. Annie called her the Blue Lady, as she would always be dressed the same.
Uncle Nick pulled Annie past the lot by her hand without a glance. He was in a hurry that day. The Blue Lady stood pruning the flowers next to her little cottage. She looked up and smiled at them as they passed. She beckoned for Annie to come, but Uncle Nick hurried them along without noticing. Annie watched longingly over her shoulder until the lot was out of sight.
On her next visit, a twist of schedule forced Annie to catch the J bus, which dropped her off on 21st, a block from Jonah. The Blue Lady was working in her garden again. Annie remembered the welcoming gesture. In fact, she’d been unable to stop thinking about it. Don’t stop or talk with strangers, she reminded herself. She stopped anyway. The flowers were so pretty and the Blue Lady seemed so magnificent, a graceful queen gliding about in her courtyard. She sensed Annie watching and turned with a smile.
Annie panicked. Before the Blue Lady could beckon again, Annie was running away. Going into the yard was out of the question. But as she ran off, she thought she saw, out of the corner of her eye, tears running down the lady’s cheeks. How could she have seen tears from so far? Annie kept running, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the tears.
She asked her uncle about the lady she’d seen, if he knew her. Uncle Nick seemed puzzled. He questioned several times where Annie had seen her and finally instructed her that she was not to talk to the lady. Under no circumstances was Annie ever to enter the yard as she had been invited.
The most certain way to get an eight-year-old to do something, is by telling her not to do it. The very next time Annie went out alone, she headed straight for the little garden oasis amid the bland plaster pastels. The Blue Lady was out in her garden watering, and she seemed to know Annie was coming. She smiled as always, with a friendly wave. She’s a nice lady, Annie thought. She unlatched the little gate and let herself in. She walked over and stood beside her, overwhelmed by how beautiful she was.
They smiled at each other for a moment and Annie spoke first.
“You’re really pretty,” she said. “I wish I could be pretty like you someday.”
“But you already are,” the Blue Lady laughed. “What’s your name?”
Annie told her. Without further ado, the Blue Lady fetched a watering pot and filled it with water.
“Come, Annie! I want to show you how to take care of my flowers.”
Annie took the pot. “How come you always wear blue?” she wanted to know.
“Blue is the color of sadness. I trusted someone I should never have trusted.”
Puzzled by the answer, Annie looked nervously back at the little gate in the wire fence that had let her in. “Am I going to be blue?” she asked.
The Blue Lady bent down to meet Annie’s face. Behind the veil, her eyes were blue too. “I think you’re one of those lucky creatures who was blessed to trust herself,” she said. “You weren’t meant to be blue.”
“What color was I meant to be?”
“Whatever color you want,” the Blue Lady smiled.
“But what if I want to be blue?”
Her blue queen didn’t answer. She turned and quietly began to teach the care of her garden.
Annie stayed for a while. She wasn’t sure how long. The Blue Lady showed her how to clip stems here and there, how much water each flower needed and how often, and told her all about which flowers were her favorites and why. Some had mulch around their roots, some preferred more shade than others…
Finally, Annie realized the time and said she had to go. There were no tears, nor any hint of them this time, although there was always a look of distant sadness in her eyes that would disappear like a wisp the moment Annie looked for it.
“You must come back to finish the lessons,” the Blue Lady said.
Annie had returned many times since that day, but it seemed the lessons were never to be finished. Each time she learned the same things over again. It was always ever so important that she knew how to take care of the garden, just so.
Taking care of flowers didn’t matter to Annie. The lessons were boring the second time, and she could recite them by the third. She was lonely, and the Blue Lady liked her, talked to her, and spent time with her. Most of all, she made Annie feel important. That was what mattered.
“Why is it so important for me to always come back?” she asked one day, bored with the watering and pruning.
“You’re the only one who can care for my flowers after I’m gone.”
“But I can only come sometimes on weekends.”
The Blue Lady stared quietly at a rose between her fingers for a very long time. “You’ll understand when the time comes.”
So Annie’s visits went, until her last. The question nagging at the back of her mind grew intolerable. At last, she confronted Uncle Nick over what he’d said. It was the ensuing conversation that had been haunting her every minute until she could return.
“Uncle Nick? Why’d you say not to talk to the Blue Lady?”
“The Blue Lady with the flowers. She’s really nice. How come you didn’t want me to talk to her?”
Uncle Nick’s concern was both obvious and grave. “Where exactly did you see her again?”
“She lives in the little house with the flower garden.”
“Help me out here, Pumpkin. This ‘house’ is on Jonah Street?”
“Yeah, right before your shop on the way to Lee’s.”
Uncle Nick scratched his budding beard. “In the little lot? …with the wire fence?”
“And you say you’ve been talking with her?”
Annie nodded again, reluctantly.
Uncle Nick didn’t seem mad that she’d disobeyed him, but he became very serious. At last he took a deep breath. “You have to understand that what you’re telling me is all simply impossible,” he said at last.
“But it’s the truth.”
“There… was… a young lady who lived there.” The look on his face belied his own disbelief. “She even looked like you say she does, but…” A long pause while he searched for words. “She doesn’t live there now.”
“She does. I saw her!” Annie insisted.
“And I have no doubt of that. I’ve met the young lady you’ve described, but Annie… Pumpkin, she’s been dead for months. I don’t remember much about it, but it was all over the news. They found her in a puddle of her blood, lying on the floor of that little run-down shack. You’ve been talking to a ghost.”
Annie was in tears. “You’re lying!” she sobbed. “You’re lying so I won’t go back! There’s no such thing as ghosts!” Uncle Nick, for that moment, went from being Annie’s favorite relative, to her most hated.
And so Annie’s anxiety consumed her as she skipped down Jonah Street. As she neared the little garden, she stopped skipping. She walked very slowly up to the corner of the lot, filled now with apprehension. The Blue Lady would be there waiting for her and they would laugh about Uncle Nick’s lie. She shut her eyes to the world as she walked the last steps. Annie stopped for a moment and gathered her courage. Heart pounding, without looking up, she walked to the gate and reached over to unlatch it from the inside as she had so many times before.
The gate latch was overgrown with dry weeds. They scratched her hand and poked her fingers with sharp prickles. In shock, she looked up. It was just as Uncle Nick had said. There was no garden, only dead flowers that were just as overgrown with dry prickly weeds as the gate was. Nothing had been watered in months. The house was dirty. The windows were broken and full of cobwebs. Annie hopped over the small fence and raced over to the house in disbelief. Parched weeds and dead grass crunched underneath her feet as she ran.
The door was padlocked shut and the padlock was dressed in more cobwebs. She stood on tiptoes to peer in the window. There was only a small table inside, covered in a tablecloth of dust. No vase of flowers sat upon it as she had imagined it would. The dust was thick on the floor, too. She wanted to call out the Blue Lady’s name. Her shoulders slumped and she began crying as she realized she had never once asked it.
Through her sobs, she heard a gentle voice, “You’ll understand when the time comes.”
© 2012 Anne Schilde