The Garden

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“When young I was not as others,
I loved the mountains, hills and misted rivers.
But Oh I was dazzled by visions of power
And’ve only returned in this, my final hour.”

– Tao Yuan-ming, 365-427

Perfect stillness cloaks the garden. Snow lies white and deep.

Snow clings to the rocks on the little island in the pond, snow clings to the railing of the arching footbridge, snow clings to the curved roof of the pavilion. Ice glints and gleams where the black waterfall pours down the rocks. Ice gleams on the neatly cleared pond. Snow clings to the three rough limestone boulders, making them look all the more like distant mountains. Snow clings to the dark green bushes, hollies, boxwoods, rhododendrons, and azaleas. Clumps of it cling to the leaves of the bamboo that lines the pond, causing the stalks to bend. If there was the slightest shiver of air, that bamboo would shrug off its snowy melancholy and spring straight again.

Snow blankets the curved roof of the building that surrounds the garden, whose courtyard it is.

The garden reflects off the building’s large windows, every room of consequence must have a view of the garden, the best rooms must have a view of the pond, the island and the small pavilion.

Everywhere is the supersaturated white of cold sun on snow, the gleam of sun on ice, the reflection of sun on glass.

For color there’s the shadowy glimpses of fish beneath the ice, the dark greens of azalea and rhododendron and bamboo, peeking out through the snow, and the light red of the sash about the girl’s stomach, just below her breasts, tied with a bow behind her back. She kneels in the pavilion. Its glass walls are so clear she might be kneeling on a rice mat outside, frozen in the icy air.

Her skin is the palest white, paler even than the rice matting. Her hair is brown with glints of red, the same shade as the varnish of the wood that frames the wide windows. The little pavilion is almost all window, its windowsills are just inches above the floor. Her hands are on her knees, her breasts rise and fall as she breaths, her only motion.

Just before her is a low table of dark wood, its surface waxed and shining. Beneath its top is a shelf on which china cups are arrayed, white as the snow, painted with delicate floral patterns. On the table is a single delicate china tea pot and a decanter of some pale golden liquid.

The sun throws her shadow across the soft mat. The shadow of her head falls on the long cushions that border the sides of the space. The shadow of her legs where the shade touches her skin creates an edge, a fold, joining the shadow with the real. Her shadow seems so hot it would be sure to ignite the dry mat were it not doused by the icy brilliance of the sun.

The red sash is her only clothing.

Two men leave the house, sliding shut a glass door behind themselves. They are dressed more or less similarly in slacks and knit shirts. One is Chinese, the other western, both are gray haired and middle aged. They wear socks and slippers on their feet. They walk along the path. Their breath condenses in the cold air. The path leads them over the arched wooden bridge, onto the island, to the pavilion. As they step onto the bridge, the snow slips from one of the bamboo clumps by the path. Leaving grief behind, the stalks leap straight, showering the men with fine white powder. They pause at the apex of the bridge and brush themselves off, their brief laughter further breaks the stillness.

The Chinese man slides pavilion’s the glass door. Cold air wafts over the girl, she does not stir. The men step out of their slippers, leaving them on the cold flagstones outside and enter the pavilion. The glass door is slid shut.

Tom shivers involuntarily as he is enveloped by the warm air within. There’s a faint sigh and a clicking as hot water circulates under the floor. Tom glances at the girl and then away.

The two men sink onto the thin cushion that runs along the floor next to the windows. Tom’s knee touches the shadow of her hair. He shifts as might a boy, concealing the sting of a match.

“Tea or scotch?” his friend asks.

“Tea please, Gongren,” Tom answers

“Fine. Two teas.”

The men watch the girl. She picks up a blue enamel pot and stands. Tom is enthralled by the way the muscles in her calves tense, the tendons along her thighs stand out, the way her bottom shifts, the way her shoulders and arms all move as she rises. Folds that had creased her stomach as she knelt vanish into smooth porcelain.

She steps to the sliding door and opens it just enough to slip through. Cold air washes over them. She steps out, sliding the door shut behind her.

She goes to the waterfall and kneels on the glistening wet rock, the air from her breath rises in a fog about her face. She bends forward and holds the enamel pot under the waterfall. Water flows over her hands, its flow so smooth it looks like clear hard plastic.

When she returns her fingers are red with cold.

She kneels again and lifts a square panel from the canlı bahis floor, revealing a gas burner. She sets the pot down on the burner and the gas lights with a quick electronic click click click. Blue flames circle the base of the pot and hiss. She presses her cold hands to her thighs and it’s as if her whole body shivers once and banishes the cold.

Tom arrived that morning at close to 3:30 local time. His memories are scattered: of climbing out of the limousine that’d brought him from the airport, of a low white building in a large expanse of snow, of snow falling heavily in the dark, of the building stretching a considerable distance on either side of him, vanishing in the dark and snow.

He has a memory of a front hall, of being greeted by a young Chinese girl in jeans and white blouse, of apologizing for the hour unsure how much English she understood, of giving up his coat, his shoes, being handed soft slippers, of being led through what seemed like endless corridors, finally arriving at a simple elegant room.

There is a low platform bed, its mattress very thin. There are rice mats on the floor and cushions along the window.

One whole wall of the bedroom is taken by the window’s glass. All he can see through it is a hint of white and black, mostly he can see his own reflection, tired and haggard, he looks a tired lost old man, someone he doesn’t recognize. Behind his reflection he sees that of the fresh young woman, his guide, and the reflection of the bed.

He feels a vague rise of interest, desire quickly suppressed.

The girl points to a phone which sits on a shelf behind the bed. She mimes speaking into the handset, “Sleep as long as you like,” she says in perfect English. “Call and someone will guide you to breakfast.” Then she’s gone.

Tom turns out the lamp and stretches on the bed. He is too tired to deal with his suitcase or clothes. The bed feels more comfortable than it looks. He closes his eyes. He lies for a time, but it’s useless. He’s too strung out with planes and airports and waiting and planes and cars and snow and wind and travel to relax.

He stands and goes to the window and looks out. He can see more of the garden now. The sky’s growing light. The storm has broken. There’s the piled line of its clouds towards the horizon. Overhead it’s brilliant blue.

The garden slopes gently down from the level of the house so he has quite a good view of its still shadowy expanse. The several winding paths, the low shapely dark evergreens, the little black pond surrounded by willows, the island, the arching bridge, the pile of black rocks with water cascading down, the graceful pavilion with its thin columns supporting a dark sharply curved roof.

As he watches, a woman’s form stands in the pavilion. In the dim half light she is dark, shrunk to child’s cut-out size by the 20 or so yards of distance and hard to make out against the black of the water beyond. It is strange how little detail is needed to identify sex.

He sees her stretch. He sees her step to the side of the pavilion and slide a panel. It is then he realizes that the structure is glass encased. He watches as she steps onto the snow covered walk. She jumps up and down as she slides the glass door shut then runs to the bridge. He sees her slip and fall to her knees, the wood being slick under the snow. He sees her trot along the path, at her closest approach to him she is perhaps 20 feet distant. From the silhouette of her breasts and the line of her running form against the snow he realizes she is naked, snow rises from where her feet strike the ground. The snow is as deep as her calves in places. She passes to the side, beyond where he can see and is gone.

The garden is still again. Light seems to flow in imperceptibly. Now he can see several benches, the details of the shapes of bushes, some evergreen, some deciduous with dense barren branches. He can see the reflection of the garden on the windows of the other side of the building, a considerable distance away. There’s the illusion of great space. His eyes grow heavy and he thinks of lying down.

There’s a gap in the building to his left with a wrought iron structure across it. The black metal is cast to look like leaves and branches. In its center is an empty circular opening, considerable in diameter, its rim maybe waist high at its lowest point. He looks at it dumbly for a moment, trying to guess its purpose.

Three men appear in the garden from the left, from where the girl disappeared. They are dressed in bulky padded coats with thick gloves and hats. They bounce a bit and he can see their breath clouding about their faces. They carry snow shovels (screaming gasoline snow blowers would be so unthinkable!) and begin to clear the paths, filling large plastic garbage cans which when full, they wheel out of sight.

It seems an hour before the girl reappears. The sun is now hard on the roof of the house. She walks quickly. Her skin is paler than the snow. He has just a fleeting glimpse of her lovely flushed face. He watches the sway bahis siteleri of her bottom, the rocking of her shoulders. Her arms hug her breasts.

At this point the workers have finished with the walks and are carefully brushing the snow from the ice on the pond with long-handled garden brooms. They’re careful to only stand on the cleared paths, never to mar the pristine snow elsewhere. Already he can see the reflection of the pavilion in the ice’s smooth surface. The workers pause to watch her pass over the bridge.

Another girl walks the path in front of his room. She is Chinese, not more than 12. She wears a heavy down coat and stocking cap. She carries a tray on which there’s a bowl of what looks like rice, a glass of milk and a glass of orange juice. He watches as she crosses the bridge and approaches the pavilion. The woman opens the glass door for her and takes the tray and sets it on the low table. The oriental girl sheds her coat and from a pocket takes something. As he watches, the oriental girl sits cross legged and bends, he guesses she is reading. The woman sits herself and takes the bowl. The sun now shines on her, they are perfect miniatures. From where he stands they look like two dolls.

Now and then, the young woman stops eating and says something to the girl. The girl then looks up from the book for a moment, leaning forward. After a time, once the woman is finished with her breakfast, the girl sets the book to one side and the two talk. He sees them laugh hard about something.

Once the girl has left and passed back in front of him, carrying the tray with its empty bowl and glasses, the garden sinks into stillness. The three workers have vanished without his noticing. He watches the woman for a bit, sometimes she kneels, sometimes she shifts and sits crosslegged, sometimes she stands and floats about the interior of the pavilion. It’s pleasant when she faces him, he wishes that his eyes’d come with a zoom feature.

The garden is now fully sunlit. The evergreens glisten with their snow. As he watches a load of snow shifts off the pavilion roof and hits the path. His eyes are heavy. He sinks down onto the cushions.

He jerks awake, finding himself slumped awkwardly. He sits straight and is rewarded with the sight of the young woman just vanishing to his left. This time she’s only gone a scant couple minutes. He has an excellent daylight view of her breasts crushed by her arms against the cold. Her hair moves in carefully crafted strands about her ears and cheeks, its red-brown rich in the sun. Cold mist rises from her mouth. She steps on the balls of her feet like she’s wearing invisible high heels, undoubtedly thanks to the iron cold of the gravel. Again he admires the way her form moves as she crosses the bridge.

When she again settles in the pavilion, he sighs. From his briefcase he takes a photo of a girl in a pale prom dress standing in front of the Grecian columns of a country-club. “Shit,” he says. Then after a pause, “shit” again.

He’s snapped to the present by the girl pouring the now steaming water into the china teapot. He has a vague memory of watching her spoon tea into an infuser while his wits were scattered. He watches as her lips move and he’s amused to see her mouth “one one thousand, two one thousand, …” He loses track at around 40. As he watches her he feels a combination of desire and desperate sadness.

She removes the infuser, sets it in a bowl. She pours the tea into the two china cups.

She stands, then bends, picking up one of the cups and carries it to them and hands it to him. Her nipples are not more than a foot from his face. Her eyes catch his and he can see amusement in them. She bows, then brings his friend his cup.

Rather than kneel again, she steps to the far window and looks at the pond.

He sips his tea cautiously. He’s not that fond of tea, especially without a ton of sugar. This tea has a delicate almost smoky flavor. He sips again. He can tell that it’s expensive and fine, but still doesn’t like it much. He glances from the girl’s narrow waist to the decanter on the table, pale yellow on black.

“And two shots of scotch,” says Gongren, breaking the silence.

The girl turns back to them, drops to her knees, pours the amber liquor into two more china cups and delivers it. All in a series of moves that leave his heart on fire.

She again turns her back to them. A chickadee, black and white, flickers through a bush, through her reflection in the window.

“I see you’ve kept up your interest in gardening,” Tom says.

His old friend laughs, “I have actually. I spend as much time here as I can.”

Tom nods and grins, “You’re lucky.”

“And you, do you still play in your band?”

Tom sighs and sips his whiskey. He can feel it in his stomach and head. “Not so much. Four years out of business school I was an energy trader. I fell asleep at my desk, my head on my keyboard, snoring not so gently, my band’d played till two in a roadhouse. A joker got it on video. Even though I was doing far and away bahis şirketleri more business than anyone else, that’s what I was always known for at that place. I almost lost my job. I gave music up cold turkey. I’ve only touched a guitar maybe twice in the last 15 years.”

“That sucks,” his friend says, “You were very good.”

They’re quiet again, Tom’s eyes slide down the girl’s back, admiring the red of sash. Its bow’s tied just at the small of her back, one of its ends brushes a curving cheek.

“How long’s it been since we last saw each other?” his friend asks.

“20 years at least.”

“I’m sorry to hear of your troubles.”

“They’re happy enough with the profits. Perhaps it’ll blow over.”

“And the grand jury next month?”

Tom shrugged. “I’ll lie. When the shit comes out, they’ll have someone to take the blame. The company’s ass will be saved.”

“Will this affect our negotiations?”

“Shouldn’t think so. This is about building a plastics plant, not fake reconstruction in Iraq.”

“Would you like her to come to your room tonight?”

Tom looks at his friend.

His friend goes on, “We have a busy day ahead of us. There is an afternoon of meetings with agreements to be reached. A large dinner with local and provincial party officials and with our developers. There will be entertainment. None of it agreeable. A little relaxation afterwards will get you ready for tomorrow and more of the same.”

Tom is quiet a moment, wondering what to say, he settles for “No thanks.”

“Where is the Tom of old? No? Well, we should get to business.”

“Please,” Tom sighs, “I’m happy to discuss it. But Gongren, so you’ll know, I won’t commit to anything today. I am very very tired.”

“Well, that’s wise, I will make it clear to the others. They are very eager though. I’ll also see if we can manage to fit in time for a nap before evening.”

They discuss business and watch the girl as she moves lazily about, once coming over and refilling their glasses. Often Tom cannot follow the conversation and finds himself trying to fathom what she finds of interest out in the snow.

After some time his friend looks at his watch, “Our first meeting is now but half an hour away. We’d best be getting in.”

————————————

Later than he likes that night he sags into his room. He is about to just collapse into bed when he has a vague sense of how smoky he is. His hair, his skin, his clothes, all are permeated with cigar and cigarette smoke. He manages to take a shower and then does collapse. The bed’s much lower than he’s used to, mere inches above the floor. The sheets and covers are rich and warm.

His mind, he finds, is still stupidly awhirl with food and wine and agonizing conversations through interpreters and appalling music and phone calls to the office in Houston. He thinks of the girl and how he’d seen her, miniaturized by the distance, the sun pouring over her, sitting in the pavilion with the black and white and dark green garden about her.

He’s just losing the details of the image when there is the faint sound of a sliding door. He feels a puff of cold cleansing air and when he opens his eyes he sees the young woman leaning down over him.

There is light enough from what must be moonlight on the white snow to see her form. The palest of whites in a room of black and gray.

She pulls the bed clothes back and kneels over him.

He opens his mouth to speak, but she lays a cool finger on his lips. “Don’t touch me,” she murmurs, “I’m quite cold.”

He feels her fingers shifting through his pajama bottoms. They are indeed icy on his cock. It starts with gathering excitement and shock. With a chuckle, she uses the silk of the sheets to insulate her fingers and moves him so he is straight up. Pointing to the darkest part of her dark form.

Her sex when she lowers it against him is cool and supple and dry. She adjusts his placement slightly, then lowers herself just an inch, her entrance is just slightly reluctant to let him pass. The contrast is nearly too much for him. He closes his eyes. The head of his cock is now so warm and she is so tight and the rest of his length is so dry and cool and exposed. That head, buried such a little way in her heat is their only point of contact. She has moved her hands. He opens his eyes and looks up. In the dimness he can see the outline of her arms, lifted above her head, balancing her as she shifts her hips in a tight circle.

She is humming some tune he can’t quite make out, humming so quietly that later he isn’t sure if he didn’t imagine it. Her hips move back and forth in time, careful to maintain their connection. Her breasts sway in a counterbalancing rhythm.

She lowers herself down on him, seeming to use the muscles surrounding her passage to slow her fall, like a fireman descending his pole, though it’s more as if it’s fire itself that’s rushing to douse his inferno. He feels her hips push down against his, she feels so amazing. He tries to control himself, he thinks of the snowy garden, the pond with the ice everywhere save where the waterfall cascades into it, of her walking along the path, her breath fogging about her, of her sticking her hands into the icy cascade to fill the jug.

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