Dum-de-dum-dum… I hummed as I crept up on three beautifully dressed beetles huddled together, contentedly munching my once- lovely canna lily leaf. Whack! I smacked them, and the leaf they were disfiguring, soundly between my palms, and winced. This technique, though effective, hurts my wrists. The creatures dropped off the plant with satisfying mini-thuds. I surveyed the damage they’d caused. Awful. The beetles lay in the dirt belly up, multiple legs feebly waving. Unmoved, I scooped the dazed insects into my pail. Japanese beetles can reproduce at incredible rates, and they always hit the dirt ravenous. These were now effectively neutered. Ha!
Ding. The garden bell rang, and in strode a tall, elderly, stick-thin woman. She carried a black cane, wielded like a laser pointer. Wherever the cane went, her eyes followed. I watched, fascinated, as it efficiently directed her eyes toward whatever she needed to observe. I know, that sounds dumb. But that’s how it seemed.
I heard a soft “ Humph.” She marched to the bench, sat ramrod straight, and obediently looked where the cane pointed- at the big fountain. The stick hovered horizontally, its tip unwavering. Her wrists were certainly stronger than mine.
I surreptitiously inspected her while she examined the fountain’s stylized swans.
She wore a perfectly fitted old-fashioned, belted, paisley-patterned tube-slim, zillion-buttoned dress with no pleats. Long sleeves finished with a froth of cream wrist lace. Its hem stopped inches short of stout brown tie-shoes. On her head was a brown pancake hat, topped with one pink silk rose that stood at attention. The rim was decorated with a gathered brown veil. Underneath, her white hair was swept back into a smooth, hair-pinned bun. This woman, Perfectly Proper In Every Way, could easily have been Mary Poppins in her later years.
Hmmm. I felt a twinge of camaraderie. My veil kept mosquitoes at bay when I poked around in the shrubbery every morning, stalking weeds; hers softened that no-nonsense hat.
The cane still hovered- not an inch to the left, not an inch to the right. Eventually it rotated to me. I offered a weak smile as that steady, cane-guided gaze moved unhurriedly from my grubby sunhat down to my well-worn shoes. Would she ever speak? The cane eventually lost interest in my frame: its rubber end dropped to the dirt. Something warned me to keep my trap shut. She wasn’t menacing, just- commanding. I remembered being measured like this by the teacher-nuns in elementary school. We children knew never to speak unless spoken to.
The odd ‘inspection spell’ was suddenly broken when two boys, flirting with thirteen, came through the arbor into the sunlight, punching each other’s arms, laughing boisterously and arm-wrestling as they danced around. Their rotund dad padded in behind them, blinking through his spectacles at the colorful main garden. Knobby knees emerged from pressed khaki shorts; his brightly flowered Hawaiian shirt seemed at home in here.
The youngsters, noticing my silent guest, suddenly straightened up and arranged their hair and clothes. “Hello there,” I ventured. They returned the greeting, but their eyes never left the old lady on the bench. Their behavior altered. Now they looked around quietly, pointing here and there, like perfectly trained Edwardian era children. Well-mannered. Correct.
She had that effect.
A chipmunk dashed past her ankle. She sat there, unruffled. Surprise and this lady had never met, I decided.
The family moved on quickly, and disappeared around the corner. I heard the distant garden door squeak as they left.
She rose then, and her cane pointed at the cluster of lovely little blue and white flowers sporting ridiculous faux-bristles that stuck out like silk threads at attention.
Her caterpillar-eyebrows rose. I grinned. “These little beauties are ‘love-in-a-mist.’ The spiky-looking seed pods they’ll form later will modify that delightful name to ‘devil-in-a-bush,’ but their attempt to look formidable is just a sham: Those bristles are as soft as a baby’s bottom. Nigella, its proper name, landed in here years ago, from bird poop.”
Oops! Any dumber and I’d need to be watered twice a week! If she took offence at bottoms and poop, would the cane rap my knuckles?
Instead, I glimpsed the tiniest up-curved mouth: she was smiling! Barely. Rising effortlessly, she walked briskly along the walk toward the back of the secret garden. I followed, curious, and somehow drawn. That ‘almost’ smile had captured me.
She inspected everything before moving up the path again to the Ram’s Head Garden. She paused, and her cane poked the huge tulip tree. “It’s a tulip tree,” I said, obediently, “and its fat yellow tulip-flowers are gorgeous in June. But oh, Gawd, the petal-mess lasts for weeks.”
Idiot, I raged silently. You swore, sort of. Where’s your discipline! But, she only nodded and moved on. At the door to the Brick-Walled Garden her gaze dropped as her cane nudged the necklace of cheerful impatiens lining the base of the first step. I babbled on about how they served to warn folks to step down. She pondered that.
Still, not one word. Jeez.
We moved on, to the big mirror. Her cane rose in surprise and pointed to her reflection. Eyes round with delight, my visitor smiled hugely. Staring, she adjusted her hat carefully, nodding approval at what she saw in there. For a good while she probed its depths, noticing the reflected pillar fountain, the potted plants, the cattails, the way the view seemed to alter one’s perception, somehow. Mirrors are a bit mysterious, aren’t they? I thought, and she caught my eye and nodded. She’d read my mind!
It was unnerving.
Eventually cane and lady moved along the garden path to the last gate. She examined the latch, opened it carefully, and then- she turned to me. That pointer rose to my shoulder and rested there. Her gray eyes met mine. She spoke at last, her voice clear, and gentle.
Her stick dropped its tip to the ground, then led the way up the step. Opening the gate she strode away rapidly, and never once looked back.
I decided I’d been ‘knighted’ by a monarch.
It was a peculiar, but oddly satisfying moment.
The word ‘odd’ stands out, though…