MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The nurse who performed the X-ray had a magenta streak in her short dark hair. She had a Dublin city accent and her name began with "L." Maybe it was Letitia? Loretta? Latara, maybe? Iris had been too apprehensive to listen. In the center of the windowless room stood an old diagnostic thing, a white metal machine. By the door was a black plastic chair with chrome legs and in the corner, a half-wall-half-glassed-in partition, inside of which L stood. Half-hidden.
It had been one of those days for Iris. That morning her editor had asked her to call in to the offices of The Banner County News and she'd arrived thinking he was going to offer her a permanent spot. He'd sat her down. What he offered was coffee. He'd never done that before. Then he propped his short legs in their beige cords against the desk (a somewhat Scandinavian-looking piece, very minimalist) and explained the newspaper was taking a new direction. They didn't see gardening articles as appealing to the newspaper's current market.
"Of course, I love your pieces. Even read them. But, that's progress isn't it?" He looked at his watch. "I'm sorry. I have to tell all the freelancers today. Not just you. There's crosswords. He has to go, too. And the books guy."
Iris had looked out through his wooden blinds onto the street.
"I know, Iris. Rotten luck. But it's coming down from the board. Things are tight and we have to cut. Cut, cut. You know how it is these days." Arthur Simmons was the son of the owner of the paper and ten years her junior, and for a moment she had thought how stupid his hair looked, sticking up like a modern mohawk. He hadn't even got it right. And he was too old for it. And he certainly didn't know how it was these days.
She felt he was expecting her to say something but as she hadn't, he straightened away from the desk and looked down on her. She was looking at the fine wool floor covering.
"Are you all right?"
She had forced herself to turn her upset face to him.
"If not coffee, tea maybe?"
"No." She ran her hands through her hair, then smoothed it. "I've got to be somewhere." She stood up. "As of when?"
"When do I finish?"
"Well. Actually..." His hands were in his pockets and he rocked back on his heels. He had an apologetic look on his face. "As of today ... so sorry."
She had looked at him for one long moment. His face had reddened. Was he sorry?
"I just thought ... it was going well," she said. "I've been getting questions from readers, you know. 'What's the best time to prune an apple tree?'"
"'When can I move my peonies?' 'When's the best time to transplant carrots?'"
He tightened his lips together, raised his eyebrows, and slowly he shook his head. Apparently, there was nothing more to say.
She walked toward the door, had her hand on the handle and was about to open it.
"Listen. Wait," he said. "Wait ... I'll tell you what. We're starting an online version of the paper. A blog might be perfect for you." He paused. "I mean, if you don't mind doing it for free..."
A pair of secateurs had just sliced through her little moment of hope.
"... just until we see what traffic it generates." She turned back to the door. "Iris?"
"I'll think about it." She was about to step out into the corridor when she swung around, looked directly at him, and in a voice solid and unwavering she said, "You never transplant carrots." And then she was gone. Out through the maze of other Scandinavian desks and past The Banner County News staff with their averted eyes. Did they all know she had been let go? Keeping pace with a thrumming in her chest, she had gone down the stairs and out into the street.
* * *
"Are you still having periods?"
She was jerked back by L's question.
"When was your last?"
"Two weeks ago."
Stripped to her waist, Iris was directed to the machine and positioned, or rather her breast positioned, in place. First the right.
"Turn this way. Put your arm here. Like you're hugging it."
"I know. It's only for a bit. And I'm sorry, it's cold."
With Iris's cheek turned sideways and one arm stretched around the contraption in the opposing direction, L lowered the plate. The radiographer was so close that Iris saw the butterfly tattooed behind her right ear. And she breathed in the scent of the sea off her hair.
Then the left.
It had hurt, the squeezing, but not as badly as Iris expected.
L said, "It'll just take a few minutes to scan these." Iris went back and waited, half-naked, on a small bench, in a blue cape of crepe paper in an airless cubicle with the door closed. Her hair clashed with washed-out blue she was sure. She reached into the rattan basket she used as a handbag and found an old lipstick and steadied her hand to put it on. "There," she said to the back of the door.
* * *
People used to say Iris Bowen was beautiful, what with the wild weave of her red hair, the high cheekbones, and the way she carried herself like a barefoot dancer through the streets of Ranelagh on the outskirts of Dublin city. But that was a lifetime ago. That woman, the woman Luke had said was the most beautiful he'd known, was now wearing a blue paper cape and her best summer shoes, a pair of thinly strapped black sandals. How vulnerable she felt, half-dressed.
The old linoleum was so polished that with every move, as she crossed and uncrossed her legs, it squeaked. The chill in the air made her shiver. She clutched her breasts. Nobody had touched them since Luke. She held her breath and counted. Exhaled long. Breathed again. One, two, three-
"Mrs. Bowen?" L knocked on the door and opened it a crack. "We need to retake one. Left side. The X-ray hasn't turned out good enough to my eye. Sorry, but it has to be clear for the radiologist." L was used to anxiety, but her chosen professional manner came in short sentences. "Don't worry. Happens all the time. Doesn't mean anything. These old machines." She guided Iris back to the mammography unit. "We're due for a digital machine next month. They get much better results." L laid bare Iris's left breast on the cold, black square. She sandwiched it with her clean hands and lowered the machine. As she squeezed down Iris thought of the word "mamma." And with that came sudden fear. Nothing but cold white fear.
She waited again for L to view the result. Panic rising, she forced herself to picture her garden-her poppies, the ones she'd grown from seed that were looking gorgeous. Yes. Gorgeous. They absolutely were. And she thought,It takes many people to make a garden: those who dream it and those who create it. Without gardeners, flowers are like orphans ...
"Mrs. Bowen, it's all right now. You can get dressed."
Iris let out a slow exhale and in her shiny black sandals and paper cape went down the corridor to get dressed.
When she reappeared in the X-ray room, L said, "The results will go to Dr. O'Reilly as soon as the radiologist has read them. Probably early next week. Sometimes ... just sometimes ... the radiologist will send them on to the consultant in the Breast Clinic in Limerick. But only if there is the slightest doubt." L looked up from her clipboard long enough to break into her version of a reassuring smile.
In the long corridor with its tea-colored walls and hand-sanitizer dispensers, Iris passed a woman she recognized from the village where she lived but she cast her eyes down. She sensed the woman pause and lift a hand but Iris kept walking.
The day was warming up, with patches of blue appearing here and there, clearing from the west. Iris decided not to stop in town and instead head for home but first she texted Arthur: Ok. I'll do it. She left out: And BTW fix your hair. You look ridiculous.
* * *
Because Iris was the kind of person who sometimes lacked patience, the minute she got home, without stopping to make herself a cup of tea, or check her post, or listen to phone messages, or feed her cat, she started on her first blog post.
A red-orange poppy, bright as an African sora, opens above a sea of green in the flower bed, shocking everything else in sight like some electrifying force. It clashes with the pink French rose.
A minor collision of color. Cerise digitalis towers beside delphiniums and red phormiums.
Butterflies hop from dying tulips to the fired-up flowers.
A lonesome dragonfly whirrs.
Iris stopped. It was awful. She needed to find a better voice. This one was pink, sickly pink, pink like a marshmallow sweet. She needed bloodred.
Poppies-they explode and crack open like popped champagne corks and spill out those red silky yolks, taking the gardener's breath away. Watch, and within the hour they will unfurl into big fat cups and hold the twilight until morning. They can be sloppy though, those capricious ladies of the garden. After their garden appearance, they get, well ... blowsy. Like women who have stayed out too late, they need to be escorted home.
Okay, better, she thought.
From the table where she sat she looked up and out across her garden-the wild garden she'd been cultivating under the inconstant sun of the west of Ireland for twenty-five years in Ashwood, the middle of the Clare countryside.
Cultivating wilderness, that's what she'd been doing. And she'd given part of her soul to it. Beyond the high fuchsia hedges bordering the garden, the land was boggy and rush-laden-rushes tall as hazel rods and the earth full of clay, but inside, the sticky soil had become a rich loam. Seaweed, gathered off the rocks at Doughmore, and leaf mold, gathered from the ash and sycamore trees, and her own kitchen waste and garden clippings had turned the blue gley soil a healthy black, and yielded exotics like the rare lady slipper orchid. Three perennial borders sloped southward toward the unseen River Shannon.
A rose bed lined the eastern edge.
It was Luke who'd insisted on the rose bed because roses had meanings in his family. The Bowens, from Dublin, had their customs. You gave a rose when a child was born. You gave one on a significant anniversary: a fortieth birthday-a Just Joey, a fiftieth-a Gertrude Jekyll. You planted a rose in the name of someone who had died. Luke had taught her that.
Between the living and the dead, a rose, he'd said.
From that April day in 1987 when she and Luke first arrived-when initially it seemed only the brambles thrived-the wilderness had been tamed, season after season, into a garden that shone at night when the moon was out. The white anemones in late summer were like fallen stars.
Now in the last week of May, when the garden would have been at its peak in earlier years, the wilderness, always at the perimeter, was inching forward like some monster mollusk. Even the slugs brazenly slithered on the path in the middle of the day, not waiting for the cover of nightfall. A battle that Iris was losing.
She moved from her writing table in the sitting room to the kitchen and switched on the kettle. Waiting for it to boil, she inspected her hands and their unpainted nails half-lined with black earth. Her hands felt like claws, stiff and fixed. On the granite worktop she pushed them down hard, as if she could press them into a different shape, perhaps the hands of a long-fingered musician.
Her claw hands planted on the counter, she flattened them as best she could, bearing down upon them, pressing the hollow of her palms, and stretching and spreading her fingers. Supporting herself like this on the cold counter, she looked out through the near window. The blue clematis, Alice Fisk, flaunted herself across the wooden door of the stone cabin, her tangle of twisting vine holding it in place. (If Iris had clipped Alice back like she was supposed to, the door would have fallen into the drive.) How she loved that clematis. Gutsy, tenacious. A real beauty.
A breeze blew the starlike petals and scattered them across the drive. And behind the vine, through the now blistered black paint, the cabin door revealed sploshes of crimson. Ten years earlier Luke had painted it. It was spring. Their daughter was about eight or nine at the time and she'd pleaded with him to make it look just like the one in a photograph from one of her mother's gardening magazines. She'd said, "Can't we paint it red? Dadda? Look. Look, Dadda, how pretty it will look." And she'd shown the photograph.
Luke agreed, as he always did, and together they'd painted it. He'd been pleased such a small thing could make her happy.
* * *
The phone rang. She let it, for a moment. Then, she released her hands from the counter and answered.
"How are you?"
"Tess..." Iris let out a sigh. "It's you."
"Yes, pet. It's me. Are you okay?"
"How did it go?"
"Not toooo bad."
Neither of them spoke for a second. Then Tess continued, "Will I ring you back? You're in the middle of something?"
"Sort of. Do you mind? It's been a full-on day and-"
"Not at all." Tess paused. "Iris?"
"Don't worry. It'll be all right."
* * *
Tess was Iris's best friend. They'd known each other ever since they'd struck up a conversation in a queue at the supermarket. That was ten years ago. In Tess's shopping cart that day were several liters of low-fat organic milk and potatoes and cabbage and organic apples and flour and butter. "Dinner," she'd said and smiled at Iris, who was holding three bars of baking chocolate and butter.
"Me too," Iris said and smiled back.
Tess was a social worker in town and worked with disadvantaged teenagers, and although into things like organics and yoga, she wasn't one of those New Age yogi types and didn't plague Iris with alternative-health aphorisms. She'd tried more than once to cajole Iris into joining her at a yoga class but Iris said it hurt her back. "Exactly the reason you should be going! You're only ever using the same old muscle groups. You'll end up like an upside-down U if you don't watch it. Too much of anything isn't good for you." Iris was about to say something but Tess had already read her and cut her short. "Not even gardening." She smiled. "Gardening is not the new yoga."
Her friend understood why Iris now shied away from doctors, medicine, and hospitals and one day a few weeks after Luke's death, she'd arrived with a basket full of vitamins and herbal teas. There was St. John's wort and omega 3s and magnesium and melatonin. Something called gamma-aminobutyric acid, tablets of which she still had in the cabinet above the sink. And chamomile and passionflower and valerian tisanes. Iris took the bath salts and a lavender herb bundle and the plastic bottles of supplements and lined them in a row on the counter under the cabinet where she kept tea and coffee.
"Thanks, Dr. Tess, Medicine Woman." At the bottom of the basket was a bottle of wine. The Malbec Iris liked.
"That's if none of the others work." They'd laughed then and it had felt okay to laugh and Tess took Iris's hands and folded her own over them. "It's over now and you're going to be able to move on. And if you don't, don't worry, I'll be here to push you! And while we're on the subject-"
"Taking care of yourself."
"You need a mammogram."
"Do I now?"
"You do. You're in the high-risk category for breast cancer. Come on, Iris, you know that." It was a touchy subject but Tess was not put off by touchy subjects, she'd continued. "For starters, you didn't breast-feed."
"No medals for stating the obvious. And?"
"I hate to remind you-"
Tess smiled. It seemed there was almost nothing Iris could say that would offend her friend. She was permanently in good form even though there was plenty she could complain about. She lived her life half-full, not half-empty.
"In America they start you at forty, and you're-"
"Thank you." Iris had glanced at her friend with a look that said, Please don't say any more.
"Go for one, will you? So I can stop pestering. And don't get worked up about it ... until you have to. Nothing to worry about. Just arrange it, okay?"
It had taken her almost two years to make that appointment.
The thing about poppies, which one is inclined to forget when one is standing in the garden admiring their pomposity, is that they make frightful cut flowers. Most unsatisfying if not downright depressing.
If you are to have any success with bringing your poppies indoors, you must take a flame to their bottoms.
A well-known British gardener suggests dipping them for thirty seconds in boiling hot water after collecting the flowers in the morning when the stems are fully turgid.
Long live those turgid stems.
Two days after the mammography, on the first of June, Iris had passed L at the entrance of the supermarket in Ennis. The nurse-out-of-uniform was wearing combats and a black T-shirt and if it hadn't been for the purple-streaked hair, Iris mightn't have recognized her. The combats must be some sort of defense strategy for nurses who perform breast scans, she thought. As the two women passed, the nurse averted her eyes and declined an invitation to be recognized. Iris was sure of it. She quickened her step and by the time she returned to her car, breathless, she felt exposed, like a dug-up plant whose knobby roots were shriveling in the cold.
Iris spent the next few agonizing days waiting for Dr. O'Reilly to ring. She busied herself in the garden: mowing the lawn, pruning the spirea that had finished flowering, and spraying the rose bed with a Bordeaux mixture recommended by her friend at the Ennis farmers' market. (She left the fixing of the cabin door for another day.) When she'd finished all her jobs she retrieved her sketchbook from her bedside table where she'd locked it away in a drawer after Luke had died. Making pretty pictures then hadn't felt right. But now the Icelandic poppies in the front border inspired her to try, to just try. She was attempting to sketch one when the doctor's office finally telephoned at the end of the week.
"Mrs. Bowen? Will you hold for Dr. O'Reilly?"
Iris paced with the phone from room to room. Her cat was asleep in a square of sun on the sitting room floor, just under the pine table. She left him sleeping and made her way to her daughter's room where light slanted through the open curtains.
"Iris, how are you?"
"Fine. I'm fine. Well ... not really, but-"
"I know. I know. I have the results of the X-ray now. And I want to tell you first of all that I don't think there is anything for you to be concerned about."
"O ... kaaay...?"
"One of the X-rays was sent down from the Ennis Hospital to the Breast Clinic at the Limerick Regional. Just for confirmation. It appears there's a disturbance, what the radiologist calls an 'architectural distortion.'"
Iris took a sudden in-breath, and held it.
"This is really important to hear..." The doctor softened her voice like she was sitting beside Iris holding her hand. "The radiologist phoned me this morning to say it's nothing for you to worry about, but they do want to see you next week."
There was silence from Iris's end. Architectural distortion?
"Yes." Iris replied finally. "Sounds iffy all the same, but you say I shouldn't be worried?"
"I can guess what you must be thinking, after Luke and everything, but it's not bad news, Iris. Really. The radiologist just wants to make sure. Nine of out ten callbacks are what we call false-positives. The Breast Clinic has already sent you an appointment by post. You should get the letter on Monday."
"Do you have someone to go with you?"
Iris hesitated. "I do."
"Okay, then. Cheer up, please, and try to have a good day." She paused. "I'll be in touch after you've seen the consultant. And Iris?"
"Call me if you need to."
Iris didn't know what she was feeling. It was like nothing. Just a void. Or an empty air pocket. Or that moment when you've been asked a question and you don't know the answer but you know you should. And you panic and suddenly you feel paralyzed. Why hadn't she asked more questions. Architectural distortion? What the hell? Iris replaced the telephone and hauled herself outside with a crippling sort of feeling, as if her legs had lost their power.
The sun was shining and she noted how odd that felt. The lawn was dappled in patches of different hues of green. If she could have drunk it in, like some green elixir, it might have calmed her. But as it was she stood a few moments, a frenzy building, then she grabbed her secateurs from the wooden table under the porch and scanned the freshly opened poppies. Crimson goblets with beads of light shining through them.
She ordered herself to get a grip. It was a thing of nothing, the doctor implied.
Iris sliced one stem, two stems, then three stems, clear down to the base of the plant.
The cuts were swift and clean. The poppy stems a foot long.
She brought the flowers inside and laid the stems on the counter, balancing them without bruising their petals, their faces clear. She would put these poppies to the test to see if they'd really hold their shape until morning. She'd photograph the sequence of singeing their cut-off ends and arranging them in a vase, and she'd photograph them again in the morning and upload them to her blog.
The flower heads floated above the sink. Striking a match with her right hand, she took up the first long hairy stem and held the flame under the cut end-just like the blonde on Gardener's World demonstrated. ("Until blackened," she'd said.) It sizzled and oozed a greeny liquid. She laid each down and photographed their burnt ends. Then, with three poppies scorched, she placed them in a tall glass vase and centered them on the counter. She stepped back and for a few moments stood staring at them, half expecting the petals to separate and fall. She challenged them. Go on! I dare you. But in a kind of numbed stillness their open faces and dark centers held their pose and stared back.
She took a few deep breaths. Tess had taught her: In with positive energy, out with the negative. In with white light, out with gray.
In the empty house in Ashwood, the phrases "architectural distortion," and "nine out of ten callbacks," and "false-positives" boomeranged about her.
White in, gray out.
Water up, fire down.
Copyright © 2015 by Christine Breen