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short story

Zella

She is very pretty, tall and erect, with long blonde hair turning silvery. Born in Serbia fifty-four years ago, she moved to Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California, seven years ago. People often use the word slender when describing her, though Zella would never use slender to describe herself. She would say, “I have little fat on me and I am tall so maybe this makes me seem slender to people, but if you ever saw me naked you would not say I am slender.”

Though she left Serbia when she was thirty and lived in England and Canada before coming to Mercy, her Serbian accent is still quite strong. She wears glasses, no makeup, and prefers skirts and dresses to pants when she’s not working, her work gardening. As far as anyone knows, she has little interest in being in a relationship, though since she arrived in Mercy, several men and women have pursued her with a relationship in mind.

She lives in a small house a mile south of town and has a big vegetable and herb garden, two cats, and a medium-sized brown dog named Zephyr who accompanies her everywhere. Her business Wildflower Garden Maintenance gives her twenty hours of work a week as well as work for three other people she employs. When not gardening for others, Zella works in her own garden, takes long walks in the forest, plays the piano, and spends time with her friends.

There is another thing Zella does – she occasionally gives counsel to friends and friends of friends – and that is what this story is about.

*

Margaret Essex was once-upon-a-time a beautiful woman with raven black hair, a gifted singer and dancer and actress. At the age of twenty-three, she gave up her promising performing career to marry and have children. When she was thirty-three, she became chronically depressed and remained so for twenty years, suffering from frequent and debilitating migraine headaches, taking anti-depressants, and spending a fortune on unsuccessful psychotherapy.

Her depression took hold when her daughter Rosemary was ten and her son Lionel was eight. Her husband Jim, a software engineer who spent five days a week in Berkeley and made the five-hour drive to and from Mercy most weekends, was sympathetic but had no clue how to help Margaret feel better. When Lionel left for college at seventeen, Rosemary having started college the previous year, Jim divorced Margaret, stayed in Berkeley, and married the woman he’d been involved with since shortly before Margaret became depressed.

One warm sunny day in April, on Margaret’s fifty-fourth birthday, Margaret and her best friend Jean were on their way home from picnicking on the beach a mile south of Mercy, and they swung by Zella’s so Jean could pick some flowers – Jean and Zella good friends.

They found Zella in her garden with her dog Zephyr, and while Jean picked a bouquet of beauties for her kitchen table, Margaret sat on a garden bench praying that her nascent headache wouldn’t grow into something too terrible.

Zella came over to Margaret and asked quietly, “May I pick you a bouquet for your birthday?”

“Oh no thanks,” said Margaret, looking up at Zella and smiling faintly.

Zella gazed at Margaret for a long moment and said, “Come for tea some time. Maybe I can help you with your headaches.”

Margaret shook her head. “I doubt it. No offense, but… no thanks.”

A week later, having suffered terribly for six days with a murderous headache and the attendant nausea and insomnia and thoughts of suicide, Margaret called Zella and arranged for a visit.

Two months later, Margaret ceased to suffer from headaches, stopped taking anti-depressants, and her twenty-year depression gave way to happiness.

*

In early October of that same year, two psychotherapists are walking on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River. Frieda Leibowitz is fifty-eight, a Jungian, tall and lanky with shoulder-length graying red hair. Joan Van De Kamp is sixty-two, a generalist, uncomfortably overweight, her gray hair cut very short. They are commiserating about their various aches and pains when a beautiful woman runs up to them – obviously a dancer – a woman neither of them recognizes.

“Frieda! Joan!” the woman shouts, beaming at them. “I’m so glad to see you. Isn’t this the most glorious day?”

“Margaret?” says Frieda, staring at the woman and thinking Can this possibly be the same Margaret Essex I worked with for three years?

“Margaret?” echoes Joan, squinting at the woman in an effort to recognize the Margaret who was her client for five years. “Margaret Essex?”

“It’s me,” says the woman, gazing in delight at the startled psychotherapists, “though I don’t go by Margaret Essex anymore. My name is Rona Hermosa.”

“Rona Hermosa?” says Frieda, struggling to reconcile this vibrant youthful woman with the haggard elderly woman she was unable to help. “Did you remarry?”

“No,” says Rona, laughing. “The name just came to me.”

“Do you still live around here?” asks Joan, continuing to squint at the woman. “Or are you visiting from Hawaii? You’re so tan.”

“Still live here,” says Rona, smiling brightly. “Though I recently sold my house and bought another one closer to town.”

“Well you look fantastic,” says Frieda, dumfounded by how healthy and energetic the former depressive appears to be. “New meds?”

“No meds,” says Rona, waving to a woman with two dogs waiting for her in the distance. “I’m off all meds now and the headaches are a thing of the past.”

“That’s wonderful,” says Frieda, incredulously.

“Incredible,” says Joan, sharing Frieda’s disbelief.

“So great to see you,” says Rona, giving each of them a look of love. “Just wanted to say hi.”

Now she races away to join her friend.

*

Frieda and Joan resume their walk, neither speaking for several minutes.

At last Frieda says, “Maybe she’s in love.”

“I saw her six months ago,” says Joan, shaking her head. “In Walker’s. She was standing in front of the vegetables. Skeletal. Frozen. She looked eighty-five. Now she looks forty.”

“Maybe she stopped eating gluten,” says Frieda, at a loss to explain the remarkable change in their former client.

“She stopped eating gluten twenty years ago,” says Joan, wincing at a pain in her hip. “Maybe she’s getting stem cell injections.”

“People do spontaneously get better,” says Frieda, wishing she would spontaneously feel better. “Just not usually so dramatically and so soon after being so very ill for so many years.”

“But she looks so young,” says Joan, shaking her head. “She must be taking something. Mega-vitamins?”

“Well remember how young Beverly looked those first few months after she and Hank got together,” says Frieda, who would love to fall in love if only my husband would disappear. “Maybe she’s got a young lover.”

“Please,” says Joan, rolling her eyes. “Beverly and Hank got together twenty-five years ago when they were in their thirties. Margaret’s sixty-something, isn’t she?”

“No, I think only fifty-something, though she always looked so much older,” says Frieda, feeling a little dizzy. “I hardly know how to process this.”

“Margaret was the most intractable client I’ve ever had,” says Joan, recalling the hundreds of hours she spent with Margaret getting nowhere. “I was sure she’d be dead by now.”

“She defined herself entirely by her illness,” says Frieda, remembering her parting words to Margaret at the end of their last session. I’m so sorry, Margaret, but there’s nothing more I can do for you.

*

The next day, Joan calls two women she knows who also know Margaret. She tells each of them she saw Margaret on the beach looking well and wonders if they know what’s going on with her these days. One of the women tells Joan she hasn’t seen Margaret in a couple years, not since Margaret became such a recluse. The other woman says she recently called Margaret to see how she was doing and when Margaret told her she’d changed her name to Rona Hermosa, the woman got so angry she hung up and hasn’t spoken to Margaret since.

“Old women who change their names make me sick,” says the woman. “It’s such a pathetic denial of reality.”

 “An unwillingness to face the truth,” says Joan, though having seen Margaret, she’s not sure she agrees with herself.

*

Frieda, the lanky Jungian, decides to leave the Margaret investigation to Joan, but a few days after the beach encounter she bumps into Margaret at the post office, they get talking, and Margaret invites Frieda to come see her new house that afternoon.

“I’m working until five tonight,” says Frieda, amazed anew at how well Margaret seems to be. I never realized how beautiful she is. All those hours with her and I only saw her terrible sorrow. “And then I’ve got to go shopping and race home and make dinner for Dick. If dinner’s not on the table at six on the dot he throws a huge hissy fit about his blood sugar and… are you around at one today? I take an hour for lunch and could zoom up and see your place then?”

“Come for lunch,” says Margaret, excitedly. “I made a stupendous minestrone soup yesterday and have gallons left.”

“I’ll be there at one,” says Frieda, surprising herself by hugging Margaret, though it is Frieda’s strict policy never to hug former clients because they so often become clients again.

“I always knew you’d be a good hugger,” says Margaret, laughing. “See you at one.”

*

Frieda arrives at Margaret’s at one on the dot and gazes admiringly at the recently built house – a rambling one-story place situated on three level acres, two acres of forest, one acre of meadowland.

Margaret comes out onto the wide deck on the south side of the house and waves to Frieda before going back inside. Frieda gets out of her car and is greeted by a darling young Golden Retriever who follows her up onto the deck where a table set for two is shielded from the sun by a big blue umbrella.

Frieda loves the house and the surrounding land – loves the newness and openness of everything.

“Here we are,” says Margaret, emerging from the house with a tray bearing two big bowls of soup and a loaf of just-made bread. “Isn’t this place amazing? The couple I bought it from just finished building the house when the woman was offered a professorship at Oxford and couldn’t turn it down.” She sets the tray on the table. “I made my offer the day they put the place on the market.”

“No bidding war?” asks Frieda, sitting down at the table. “I’ve heard the market around here is so hot, the asking price is just so people know where to start the bidding.”

“That’s what happened when I sold my house,” says Margaret, sitting across from Frieda. “My asking price was 1.3 million, which seemed insanely high to me, but that’s what my realtor suggested, so I went with that and there were seven bidders. The house sold in two days for 1.9. I was astounded. Still am.”

“May I ask what you paid for this place?” asks Frieda, nodding her thanks as Margaret places the bowl of soup before her.

“I’m embarrassed to tell you,” says Margaret, gazing around in wonder at where they are. “They were asking 1.7 and I offered seven hundred thousand and they took it.”

Frieda frowns gravely. “Now why would they do such a thing? This place is worth at least two million.”

“That’s what my realtor said, too,” says Margaret, slicing a piece of bread for Frieda. “What happened was, after Jennifer and Scott, the previous owners, showed me around the house, we walked all over the property and they told me everything they had intended to do here, and when we came to that large depression,” – she points to a place in the meadow fifty yards from the house – “I said, ‘Wouldn’t a pond be lovely here?’ and Jennifer burst into tears and Scott said, ‘That’s what we were going to put here. Exactly here,’ and Jennifer embraced me and said, ‘Oh Rona,’ – they only knew me as Rona – ‘we want you to have the place. Whatever you can afford is fine.’ Because they wanted the place to go to someone who would love it as much as they did, and apparently they didn’t need the money, so…”

“Unbelievable,” says Frieda, feeling so jealous she could scream.

“Life-changing,” says Margaret, sighing gratefully. “Now I not only own a beautiful house, I have money.”

“Lucky you,” says Frieda, tasting the soup. “And speaking of life-changing, this soup is fantastic. My minestrone is always so… eh. How did you spice this?”

“I’ll make you a copy of the recipe,” says Margaret, delighted Frieda likes the soup. “A long list of ingredients. Do you know Zella?”

“The gardener?” says Frieda, telling herself not to eat too fast, the soup so yummy.

“Yes,” says Margaret, nodding. “This is her recipe.”

“She does our yard,” says Frieda, dipping her bread in the soup. “Well… Emilio usually does our yard, and Emilio works for her. Dick has a huge crush on Zella. Whenever she comes instead of Emilio, Dick always acts like a complete idiot around her and then denies he has a crush on her after he gives her a gigantic tip, though he never tips Emilio, so I do.” Frieda laughs. “But despite Dick being in love with her, I like Zella, though I don’t really know her.”

“She’s wonderful,” says Margaret, gazing out on the meadow. “She’s helping me with my landscaping. We’re going to put in twelve fruit trees and dig the pond together, by hand, and we’ll make a path from here to the pond with rose bushes and Japanese maples and beds for flowers and vegetables along the way.”

“We’ve talked about putting in a pond for thirty years,” says Frieda, gazing out to where the pond will be. “Never got around to it. Too many other projects started and never finished. Dick is a great one for starting things, but not much of a finisher.” She shrugs. “Oh well. We all get along the best we can. Right?”

Margaret nods. “And I was barely getting along and thinking I had no choice about how to get along, though you told me again and again I did have a choice, only I couldn’t believe you. I think you were very wise to stop seeing me. I was a psychic black hole and it must have been terribly draining for you to spend time with me.”

“And now you’re well,” says Frieda, dreading the prospect of lunch turning into a therapy session. “So what happened?”

 “Zella helped me,” says Margaret, sensing Frieda’s dread. “But let’s not turn this into a therapy session. Tell me about your son Edward. Jean told me he’s studying wolves in Montana. How exciting.”

“He is,” says Frieda, relaxing. “He’ll be home for Thanksgiving with his lovely wife Miyoshi and my darling one and only grandchild Akira who is four and beyond wonderful. Our daughter Sara may never have kids, which is probably just as well. She’s so persnickety, if you know what I mean. So much like Dick, though she’d be horrified if she knew I thought so.”

“Four is such a great age,” says Margaret, smiling at the thought of being four. “So open to everything. How fun for you to have a grandchild.”

“They’re staying for two weeks,” says Frieda, smiling sublimely. “I’m taking the whole time off. I can’t wait.”

“My kids have yet to have kids,” says Margaret, thinking of her daughter Rosemary who is thirty-one and single and chronically depressed, and Lionel who is twenty-nine and single and seriously conflicted about his sexual identity. “I’ve begged them both to come home for Christmas and they both said they will. This will be our first Christmas together in nine years, and my first time seeing either of them since I became Rona and emerged from my depression.”

“Which came first?” asks Frieda, skeptically. “Rona or the emergence?”

“They arrived simultaneously,” says Margaret, jumping up from the table. “Would you like more soup? I’m gonna have a skosh more. And if you have time I’ll make you coffee or tea to go with some of Zella’s yummy nut bread.”

Frieda looks at her wristwatch. “Sadly I’ve only got fifteen more minutes, but I’d love some coffee. Black, please. And I’d love a copy of the soup recipe.”

“Coming right up,” says Margaret, dancing into the house. “I’ll give you a big jar of soup to take with you.”

What a delightful person thinks Frieda, petting the sweet young Golden Retriever and looking out over the meadow to where the pond will be. It’s as if she had a soul transplant.

*

Margaret accompanies Frieda to her car, and as they are saying goodbye Frieda surprises herself by saying, “I’d love to see the inside of your house and hear about how Zella helped you.”

“Saturday?” suggests Margaret.

“I see clients until two on Saturday,” says Frieda, feeling a sharp pain in her lower back as she says this. “Then I’m free until four.”

“Shall we say two-thirty?” says Margaret, nodding hopefully.

“I’ll be here,” says Frieda, hugging Margaret again. What’s gotten into me? Since when do I hug anyone, let alone ex-clients?

“I have one request,” says Margaret, looking into Frieda’s eyes. “I’d love for you to think of me as Rona. And no problem if you forget.”

“I’ll do my best,” says Frieda, blushing. “Rona.”

*

Driving back to work, Frieda finds herself saying Rona over and over again and thinking Rona is a perfect name for the woman who used to be Margaret.

*

On Saturday afternoon, after a tour of Rona’s lovely high-ceilinged house, an unexpected rain keeps them inside, and Rona and Frieda sit at the kitchen table having tea and delicious home-made almond-butter cookies.

“I went to see Zella because she said she might be able to help me with my headaches,” says Rona, looking out at the rain. “They had become so incredibly painful and persistent I was seriously considering suicide. And I mean seriously.”

“I am so sorry,” says Frieda, no stranger to migraines. “Fortunately I never get more than a few a year and they only last a few days, and what dreadful days those are.”

“I assumed Zella was going to give me some kind of herb tea or herbal tincture,” says Rona, continuing her story, “but instead we sat in her living room by the fire and I braced myself for some kind of talk therapy. And we did talk. For days and weeks and months, but not like any kind of talk therapy I’d ever had.”

“I’d love to know what you talked about?” says Frieda, thinking She is Rona. Not Margaret. Rona.

Rona thinks for a moment and says, “Zella told me that in Serbia where she was born and lived until she was thirty, her name was Malina Savik and she was a midwife and had a husband and two children. When she was thirty, war broke out and her children and husband were killed and she suffered through all sorts of horrors before she finally made her way to a refugee camp from where she went to England and got a job as a nurse’s aid in a large hospital. She underwent intensive therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and depression, and started taking powerful anti-depressants. Then after five years in England she moved to British Columbia and continued working as a nurse’s aid, continued taking anti-depressants, and lived a life she described as one of endless drudgery and feeling numb most of the time.”

“I had no idea,” says Frieda, thinking of beautiful Zella. “She seems so strong and confident and… happy.”

“Zella is,” says Rona, nodding. “Malina was not.”

“What changed her?”

“One day in the hospital, after she’d been in British Columbia for three years, she was taking care of a young Haida woman recovering from surgery, and an elderly Haida woman named Hala came to visit the young woman, and Hala looked at Malina and said, ‘I think if you come visit me, I can help you feel better.’ Zella says she hardly remembers how she got to Hala’s house in a small town several hours from Vancouver, but somehow she got there and a few days later she quit her job at the hospital and lived with Hala and her family for the next two years, during which time Malina became Zella Wildflower and stopped taking anti-depressants.”

“So Zella changed her name, too,” says Frieda, knowing the name changes can’t possibly explain either of these miraculous transformations.

“Yes. We both changed our names,” says Rona, nodding. “But first we had to find our real names, and once we found them, the old names and the people attached to those names could finally die and we could start anew.”

“And how did you find your real names?” asks Frieda, fighting the part of her that wants to scream Bullshit! Delusional bullshit. Hackneyed spiritual crap. “And how do you know they’re your real names?”

“We found them while playing with our friends,” says Rona, knowing Frieda is resisting believing her. “Zella found hers when she was swimming in a river with Hala and another woman and they were pretending to be otters. She said she heard the river singing Zella Zella Zella, and when they came out of the water and were sitting in the sun, she told Hala she thought her name was Zella, and Hala said, “Of course it is. You are Zella Wildflower.”

“And how did you find yours?” asks Frieda, her ferocious skepticism at last softening into a willingness to listen without judgment.

“I was in Zella’s garden,” says Rona, closing her eyes. “This was after two months of spending all day every day with Zella, going everywhere with her and rarely being apart from each other. It was a warm sunny day and we were naked and being little girls, four-years-old, and talking like four-year-olds, picking flowers and talking about boys and wondering why they had penises. We’d been four-year-olds for days and days and we never wanted to be any other age. Then Zella came close and whispered, “Hey what’s your name? I keep forgetting.” And I looked around her garden at the hundreds of flowers being visited by bees and butterflies and hummingbirds, and I heard the garden singing Rona Rona Rona, so I said, ‘I’m Rona.’ And Zella said, ‘Such a beautiful name. Muy hermosa. Rona Hermosa.’ And the moment she said my new name, Margaret died and I felt her fall out of me and dissolve into the earth, and I was purely Rona Hermosa.”

“And your headaches never came back,” says Frieda, telling the rest of the story. “Because in the absence of Margaret, no longer carrying her identity and her terrible sorrow, you could be who you really are.”

“Yes,” says Rona, opening her eyes and smiling at Frieda.

“Rona,” says Frieda, her eyes sparkling with tears. “Rona Hermosa.”

fin

When Light Is Your Garden