I wrote the story below during a round of SPARK in response to this painting by Sukia, entitled ‘Agave’.
Rose awoke to a gentle jolt, a pneumatic whoosh, and a rush of hot, dry air. She opened her eyes and looked out of the window.
This was the place from her dream. Not just similar, but exactly identical in every detail: the undulating smudge of hills in the distance, the rocky outcrop whose outline looked like the profile of a human face, and the cluster of agaves in the foreground.
In her dream it was night-time; the agaves’ grey-green foliage shone silvery blue in the moonlight, and the distant hills were backlit by the glow of an unidentified city. Rose would hear the unfamiliar sounds of the desert at night: the chirping of crickets, and numerous unidentified hoots, barks and howls. Then she’d become aware of another noise: the sound of a vehicle’s engine. She’d turn, and see a pair of headlights approaching. She’d walk out onto the side of the road, and stand with her thumb out.
And then she’d wake up.
‘Fifteen-minute break,’ said the coach driver, taking a packet of cigarettes from the chest pocket of his short-sleeved shirt and disappearing down the steps.
Rose had been brought up by her grandmother. Her grandmother’s interest in alternative therapies, her eclectic dress sense and her love of cats (she had eight of them), led to whispers among the local children that she was witch.
When a five-year-old Rose asked, ‘Nana, are you a witch?’ her grandmother answered, ‘Everyone has magic in them, Rosie. I’m one of the lucky ones; I was born knowing it. Most people don’t recognise the magic inside them until life cuts them open, but then the magic flows out, like blood from a wound.’
They say the first cut is the deepest. But not with Max. With him the cuts just got deeper and deeper. And then one day, while giving Rose a particularly violent beating, he collapsed and died. The doctors said he’d had a massive heart attack.
It was then that the dreams started. Or rather the dream – it was the same dream repeated over and over.
Rose stepped off the coach, her rucksack slung over her shoulder. This was definitely the place from her dream. She wouldn’t be getting back on the coach when the fifteen-minute break was up. All she needed now was a distraction – something to grab the driver’s attention, and make him forget to take a head count before leaving.
There was a sudden squeal of tyres and a brown station wagon slewed into the car park. A teenage boy leapt out of the driver’s seat, yelling, ‘Is anybody here a doctor? My brother’s been bitten by a rattlesnake!’
‘I used to be a paramedic,’ shouted the coach driver, running towards the station wagon.
Rose slipped around the back of the toilet block and leant against the wall, enjoying the coolness of the shade. Within a quarter of an hour she heard an ambulance siren, and five minutes later, she heard the coach pull off.
One of the agaves behind the toilet block was in flower. The flower stalk was at least five times as tall as the plant itself, with green florets branching off the top half. It looked as if a giant had been throwing trees around, and had speared one of the agaves with a gangly pine tree.
Rose’s grandmother had grown agaves in her sprawling back garden. They’d never grown this big, though, and Rose had never seen one in flower before. Her grandmother had explained that an agave flowers just once, and then dies. Or rather, the old growth dies back, but the plant lives on in the form of suckers that sprout from the base of its stem.
Rose sat in the shade and waited for nightfall.
Rose woke up shivering. It was dark. She opened her rucksack, put on a jumper, and then hoisted the rucksack onto her back. She emerged from behind the toilet block.
The car park was empty. Beyond the low wooden railing the landscape looked exactly as it had in her dream, and the night noises were in full swing. She wondered which city was lighting up the horizon behind the hills, and thought perhaps it was Phoenix. When Rose was growing up her grandmother had had a fire screen in the shape of a phoenix rising from the flames. Whenever Rose had suffered losses and setbacks as a child, her grandmother had urged her to remember the phoenix. ‘Don’t forget, Rosie,’ she’d said, ‘whenever our lives are consumed by fire, it’s an opportunity for us to start again; to build an even better life out of the ashes of the old one. All you have to do is be open to the possibilities that present themselves.’
Rose didn’t have to wait for long before she heard the engine and saw the headlights on the horizon. The vehicle was heading west. Rose took up her position by the side of the road.
The vehicle was a van. It pulled up beside her.
The lettering on the side of the van read, ‘Back to the Fuchsia – floral arrangements for every occasion’.
The driver of the van was a woman in her fifties. She had a friendly-looking face and an unruly mop of dark, curly hair streaked with grey. She leant across and opened the passenger-side door.
‘I’m going to Phoenix,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ said Rose.
‘Hop in, then.’
Rose got into the passenger seat.
The air in the van was filled with the scent of freesias and carnations.
Rose was on her way to Phoenix. She had a feeling it was her time to bloom.
(C) Helen Lewis, 2012