Thistles

Dorothy had tried to sleep in, but she found it impossible after years of getting up at six, so she was up early in spite of her attempts. Though she didn’t like to admit it to herself, she was developing that elderly habit of rising early only to fall asleep in the afternoon. She tried to be philosophical about it. After all, everything looked better in the morning before the dew had a chance to disappear. So getting up at six was worth it, if only in order to see the dew. And since she didn’t really have anywhere to go, she could fall asleep in the afternoon if she wanted to. No harm done.

She made coffee and had a couple of pieces of toast. That was all she had for breakfast nowadays. Her daughter tried to get her to eat more, told her that she was wasting away, but she really didn’t want to have bigger meals. And since Susan wasn’t around that much, she was able to eat whatever she wanted, and only had to deal with the inevitable “you’re getting so thin,” once a month or so.

After breakfast, Dorothy lit a cigarette and looked out the dining room window. Everything outside was still covered in dew. There was a street in front of her house, and across the street there was an open field and then the forest that clung to the banks of a little creek. The creek itself was hidden in the folds of the little gorge that it had carved out of the hillside.

Through the center of the city ran a large, wide river and steep, heavily forested hills created a valley to cradle it. The creek ran through the forest, cut through the hills and eventually spilled into the river. In sum, the scene looked like she was kind of out in the country. She wasn’t, certainly, but that’s how it looked. Dorothy’s house sat at the edge of the forest. To the south, the buildings jumbled up and got taller and more crowded. To the north, however, there was just wilderness until you crossed the river, and then on the other side, downtown.

But from the window Dorothy couldn’t see any other buildings at all. Even the house right beside hers was set back far enough on the lot that all she could see was their hedge. So if she exercised her imagination even a little, she could pretend that the city wasn’t there. She did that fairly often in the mornings. She drank black coffee and smoked and looked out of her window, over the field to the edge of the forest and then between the trees as far as she could see.

It reminded her of the train trips that she’d taken with her parents when she was a child. They generally included a trip through the Rockies to the West coast. As the train swept past the deep pine forests on the sides of the hills and mountains, she would imagine walking into them, between the trees, into the folds of the earth. She hadn’t had any idea of how she would survive—what she would eat or drink, or where she would sleep. She only thought about the possibility of disappearing into the forest.

At home in the mornings when she looked out her windows, she did the same thing. The difference was that she knew the forest wasn’t endless or even very big. And she knew she wouldn’t be able to survive, since she was more realistic about outdoor survival than she’d been when she was eight years old. But nevertheless, she thought about the forest, and tried to put the things she knew out of her mind so she could enjoy her imagination.

When her cigarette was finished, she butted it out in an ashtray on the dining room table. Normally, the end of a cigarette was her signal to sit down and leave the imagination behind, but on that particular morning she hesitated by the window, unwilling to leave. She thought for a second about lighting another cigarette so she wouldn’t feel like she had to go. She didn’t want to chain smoke, however, so she just went back into the kitchen and filled up her coffee cup again.

Her kitchen still had the same cupboards and fixtures that had been there when her and her husband, Harry, had moved in. Susan had bugged them to replace everything, but after Harry died, Dorothy had other things to think about and couldn’t be bothered. Besides, after Harry’s death, her daughter had shifted focus, and by that time, she seemed more concerned about Dorothy’s weight than she was about the kitchen.

The only new item was the floor, and even that was only relatively new. Harry had put in black and white tiles twenty years ago. There was a patch by the back door that had lost a couple of tiles, and the wooden floor was showing through. Even though she didn’t use the back door very much, that area was getting worn out. Dorothy knew that she needed to get the tiles replaced, but it seemed like there was always something better to think about.

After she had filled her coffee cup, she went back to the dining room and sat down. Her newspaper was spread out over the whole dining room table. She hated folding it up into small awkward shapes, and she couldn’t see why she should now that there was no one she had to share space with. So, instead, she spread it out so that it took over the whole table.

It was swiftly turning into a gray-white day, with high clouds, unbroken to the horizon, coming over the sky from the east. The light was turning pale as it came through the window to fall on the newspaper. She could still see little specks of dust floating in the air, but they weren’t as clear as they’d been in the rays of morning sunlight.

The dining room was really just an extension of the living room, which was where the grandfather clock sat. The clock chimed and the last chime ran away into the corners to be followed by a metronomic clicking that emanated from inside the clock’s cracked head. She glanced up at the clock and down at the paper and back again. The clicking and the words both swept across her attention, but neither was able to get a hold on it. So even though she was too distracted to read, she kept trying.

Soon, however, she found herself staring at the blotchy looking window. Outside in the garden, two scotch thistles, tall and ungainly, were waving in the white light. Their fat, purple heads bobbed back and forth in a breeze that she could not hear, the thin stalks constantly in danger of snapping. They were ugly plants and she regretted planting them. Every once in a while she had a little burst of nostalgia for a mythical “old country,” that she’d never been to. She had been in one of these moods when she’d bought the plants at the nursery. Even just by the time she got home, she was losing her enthusiasm for them, but it seemed like a waste to just get rid of them, so, in spite of her misgivings, she had planted the thistles.

She pulled herself back into the room. Still unable to turn her attention to the newspaper, she watched the dust floating in the light and settling on the table and the cracked head of the clock. She became aware again of the clicking sound. It broke the silence into discreet pieces so each bit of quiet became a thing in itself that she turned over in her head and examined until the next swing of the pendulum. A lovely light-headed feeling came over her and her vision began going dark as she waited for each new click. She closed her eyes for a moment, but then a trickle of sweat ran down her back and she shivered back to reality.

She lit another cigarette, stood up and returned to the window. In the forest across the street, the branches of the pine and spruce trees shook their branches in the gusting wind. The plants in her garden, including the thistles, moved wildly. She turned, picked up her mug and walked back into the kitchen to refill it again. She knew that she really shouldn’t, but having coffee in the morning was one of her favourite things, so she wasn’t going to let it end. So she went and took a third cup of coffee.

She walked back out to the dining room, took a sip, and then plucked her cigarette from the ashtray. Then she went out the front door of the house onto the balcony. The front of the house had a long porch with a staircase leading down to the street on one end.

As she stepped outside the wind whipped around her and threatened to blow out her cigarette. Once she was through the door, however, it died down and she found that if she stood near the stairs the wind couldn’t get her. She rested a hand on the railing and placed the cup of coffee beside it.

She felt uncomfortable outside. Her housecoat seemed ridiculous, and her hair was blowing wildly in the wind, but she’d committed herself to standing on the balcony and she wasn’t going to retreat. When her cigarette burnt down to the filter, she thought she might have to go back into the house to get rid of it, but instead she looked up and down the street to see if anyone was watching, and then threw the spent butt into the street below. Normally she would never have done such a thing, but she really didn’t want to have to go back inside to put the thing in an ashtray.

With the cigarette gone, she clasped the mug of coffee tightly and wrapped her arms around her. The breeze pushed at her hair and the blue cloth of her housecoat. The sound of the branches moving against each other and rattling in the wind was overwhelming. Almost without thinking, she closed her eyes again and listened. With her eyes closed, the sound was around her and she easily imagined herself standing in the forest. Pine branches whipped past her face and she smiled and sipped coffee. She opened her eyes again and noticed that one of the scotch thistles had actually blown over.

For a minute or so she ignored it. She drank her coffee and pointedly didn’t look over at the thistle. However, the quick glimpse that she’d had was enough. She saw that the stalk was broken and the fat, purple head lay in the dirt. It made her angry that it ate at her, making it impossible to think of anything else. She kept trying to ignore it, but no matter what else she tried to force herself to think about, she couldn’t stop thinking about the thistle lying on the ground like a wounded bird.

So reluctantly, she placed her coffee on the railing and walked down the steps of the balcony to the garden. She glared at the thistle, irritated. She wasn’t going to let the plant think that she was happy. So she groaned loudly, even though the other plants in the garden were the only audience to her discontent. If nothing else, it would teach them not to be a burden like the thistle.

When she reached the thistles, she bent down and carelessly tried to tear the thistle off completely at the break in the stalk that was already there. However, the stalk was stringier than she had thought it would be, so instead of breaking off cleanly, the thistle tore apart, leaving a few strings of fibre still holding onto the stalk.

Looking at it, she really groaned, since now she was actually irritated. There was nothing else to do, but go back into the house to get the scissors. She stood in the middle of the kitchen for a moment, trying to remember where she had put the scissors. They were in a drawer in the kitchen. When she’d found them, she went back outside to the thistle, bent down and with a “snip” from the scissors, she cut the stalk off about an inch from the base. She looked at it for a minute, then grasped the little bit of stalk still sticking out of the ground, and pulled the whole thing out by the roots.

She hoped the roots that might still be underground would simply wither and not try to grow a new stalk. She was suddenly filled with hate for the plant, and she looked balefully at the other thistle, still growing straight, healthy, and ugly. She sneered a little, and then grasped the stalk of the healthy thistle and pulled it out as well. She dropped it on the ground beside the other one, and surveyed the miniature carnage that she’d created. Then she scooped up the stalks and put them in a brown bag with the other yard waste.

With a smile on her face, she went back up the stairs to stand on the balcony again. She picked up her coffee mug and checked to see if there was anything left. There was still a little bit of coffee, so she took a sip.

Unexpectedly, a blast of wind barrelled around the corner of the house and came near to knocking her over. She staggered, put a hand out into thin air and a bit of coffee escaped the mug and fell on the porch. She ducked back into the house as the first drops of rain began to fall.

The huge, voluptuous drops made a splattering sound against the porch when they fell. From behind the screen door she sipped coffee and watched the rain coming down and then began to laugh loudly. The wind rattled the porch and she could feel water coming in through the screen door and blowing against her and it all seemed mysteriously funny. She began to get that light-headed feeling again, and if there’d been other people around, she would have just smiled, but because she was alone, she laughed.

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