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The Gardener

First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2013.
This story will also be published in our 2013 Summer Newsletter.

The Gardener
by Katariina Alongi


Abdi has not prayed for five months. He doesn’t remember making the decision not to pray, but somehow, in his inability to take initiative, praying fell off the list of life. It doesn’t surprise him, even back in Somalia he was a mediocre Muslim at best, but somehow he feels that yet again, he has let his father down.

He sits down on the edge of the queen-sized bed and peers out of the bedroom window into the garden next door. His neighbor, Mr. O’Malley, an Irish man with a face so full of liver spots that it looks like the map of the moon, is hunched over his lawnmower with his wiry frame. The man seems as old as the planet, but he still has the energy to work on his garden, day after day.

Abdi’s gaze follows his neighbor, who has left his precious mower and is now shuffling across his lawn to the back of the house. From his observation spot on the second floor, Abdi stares at the already short grass, the pristine flowerbeds. He likes to think he has done his best to assimilate to the American culture, but gardening for pleasure is not one of the skills he has ever acquired or even understood.

Mr. O’Malley comes back carrying a towel. He throws it over his shoulder and grabs the handle of the mower. For a moment he struggles with the heavy machine, his long, bushy eyebrows shaking from the effort. Finally it rocks to its side, exposing the underneath. Abdi watches his neighbor wipe the blades clean with the towel, after which he stands up and looks at the mower, contemplating his next move. Abdi leans over to see better and just then the old man, as if sensing his intense interest, turns and looks up.

Abdi doesn’t make an effort to pull away from the window and Mr. O’Malley doesn’t avert his gaze either. For a moment the two men stare at each other.

Abdi has never actually had a conversation with Mr. O’Malley apart from an occasional greeting. And what is there to say? The way the old man looks at him does not leave room for words. But Abdi knows he is supposed to put in an effort, introduce himself, say what the Americans say: Nice to meet you.

Nice. The sound of the word is repulsive. Abdi prefers polite, decent, even kind. But nice? It is a word people in this country use frequently, but it is nothing more than an empty sound. Nice, he learned early on, is the word people use when they don’t want to say what they really mean.

She is really nice, but –

Your house is very nice.

Nice to meet you.

Mr. O’Malley looks away first, and severing the connection stings Abdi’s insides, like something tearing at the edges of his essence. He stands up and walks over to the bedroom closet. For a moment he inspects his own reflection in the full length mirror that covers the sliding door. In Somalia, when he was a child, his classmates at the Qur’an school called him madoowbe, very black, and that he is indeed. Everything about him is dark, not just the skin. Maybe that is what Mr O’Malley sees when their eyes meet; a black hole that swallows all the light.

He leans into the closet and pulls out his rolled up prayer carpet. Apart from the clothes he wore on his back, it is the only item he took from his homeland when at eighteen he fled to an unknown future. He hadn’t thought to take the rug, but his father insisted.

Take it, you will need it, he said and pulled the carpet off the wall where it hung on a nail.

Come with us, aabe, Abdi begged, tears running down his face even though he knew better. His father, who had not slept since a gang of gunmen raided the farm, gave him a look that felt like an invisible slap.

Abdi, his father said, shoving the carpet in his hand. It is time you be the man you should have been long time ago. Your mother is dead. You brothers are dead. I trust you will take good care of your sisters and get them to safety, insallah.

He shoved his two daughters out of the door, as if he never wanted to see them again. Abdi clenched the rug to his chest.

But what about you, aabe?

His father’s eyes were like burnt ebony, his graying facial hair tangled against his skin with sweat and blood and pain.

Go! He screamed and pushed at his son so hard that Abdi nearly fell over. His father lifted his arms above his head, and turned his eyes towards the stars. For a moment he looked like a madman, casting a spell on Abdi and his sisters, who cowered behind him.

Go! His father fell to his knees. Go! He screamed again and again, and the scream followed Abdi and his younger sisters into the night.

In his California home Abdi flattens the prayer rug out on the floor, the maroon rectangle looks like a patch of old earth against the wall-to-wall bedroom carpeting. He runs his hand over the deep green border; the material feels smooth under his fingers, like flower petals, young grass, hope. When he first arrived in this country, friendly Americans met him at the airport. They provided him with food, clothing and a shelter for several months. It was then, in those months, that he prayed the hardest. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not enter the other world, the world he had seen his father take part in with ease. Abdi failed to remain anything but a disappointment in his faith.

He rolls up the mat, securing it tightly with a rubber band before tucking it back into the closet. Someday he hopes he will redeem himself and return to the path his father tried to direct him on. He remembers his sisters, the graves he dug in the desert and shame fills him up to the brim. He stands up and walks back to his post at the window. But, before he can look out, the doorbell rings.

Abdi stops breathing. He cannot remember the last time he heard the sound of his doorbell. Ding-dong, ding-dong, the lonely apartment echoes. What now? He creeps down the stairs to peak through the peep hole of his front door. When he sees the distorted image of a person standing on the doorstep blood starts gushing in his ears so loudly it sounds like the space behind him is filling up with water. He grabs the doorknob; he knows this is where it all ends or perhaps, more accurately, where it all starts. The door swings open and there he is, Mr. O’Malley, his neighbor - the gardener.

I’m Tom, he says, extending his hand out, like a strong branch reaching into the water where Abdi is swimming, drifting.

Abdi clings to the branch with all his might.

Nice to meet you, he says and means it.

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