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The Evergreen Letters

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Sunday, 15 May 1988

At the sound of her name penetrating a heavy daze of late-spring heat, Jamie throws a quick glance over her shoulder to locate its source. Bright sun glares upon a figure plodding along the paved footpath; red-faced, panting, and slouched beneath the gravity of exhaustion. Jamie decelerates her brisk jog to a standstill before altogether retreating. While closing the distance between herself and her ditched companion, Jamie offers a half-apologetic, half-teasing smirk. 

She could’ve sworn Dani was just two paces behind not ten seconds ago. Evidently, ten seconds made all the difference. 

“You good, Poppins?” Jamie asks her.

Dani’s slouch deepens when she grips her knees. “Yeah,” she answers, breathless, then adjusts the strap of her cotton singlet before it can slide further down her shoulder. “I just... need a minute.”

“Been chain smoking a bit too hard lately? Might want to think about cutting back.”

Her quip earns a deadpan leer. Dani certainly does not smoke, but Jamie does, quite regularly. That, in combination with Dani’s irregular propensity for haste in her everyday gait, should’ve seen their comparative stamina reversed. Jamie supposes her toilsome years of landscaping Bly have given her a crucial edge, whereas Dani’s lifestyle has historically been one of relative leisure.

Regardless, they’re both aiming to achieve a similar level of endurance by next week. Jamie remains optimistic. They’re nearly there. Today they’ve failed their park circuit by only a few minutes — a negligible deficit in the grand scheme of things. Wilderness trails are meant to be savoured, not raced through, and physical fitness of the cardiovascular variety shall only assist and elevate the experience. 

The High Sierra awaits them as their final adventure abroad before an era of permanence necessitated by business ownership. They’ve planned this trip over months, ever since a journey up the western coastline excluded inland ranges of natural wonder from their route. Their resolve to return predated The Leafling’s inception by an entire month. Antecedence preserved its priority, as did some unspoken, borderline mysticism about a fugitive yet spectacular beauty carved by an ancient glacier of artistic inclination. 

They have to see it. They’re drawn to it like insects to a flame, made diminutive and ignorant under the glow of something as incalculably alluring and elusive as fire itself. 

The pair take turns sipping from a concrete drinking fountain. Jamie lifts the hem of her shirt to dab at the sweat on her brow and watches Dani release her hair to retie it. She’s still rosy in her cheeks and upper chest. Her skin delicately shines, illuminating her in soft mid-morning candour. When Jamie is reminded of a similar dishevelment that occurs between bedsheets, her stare indulgently lingers. 

Dani notices. She draws her loose hair back, smiles around the scrunchie held between her teeth, and asks, “What?” as soon as her mouth is free to speak. 

“Nothing,” Jamie replies with an evasive shake of her head and shrug. She adds a pleasant confession, “You look nice.”

A raised brow illustrates Dani’s perfect blend of disbelief and suspicion. While stepping past, she brushes her fingertips along the curve of Jamie’s waistline. The gesture itself is subtle, but its message isn’t. 

The scar of affection Dani leaves there burns for hours. It maintains not a blaze, nor an errant flicker, but a low and steady hearth; like glowing coals, or sun-baked stone. 

After stopping at the flat for a shower and a wardrobe change, they disembark again to a sporting goods store. 

Well-stocked shelves climb toward the ceiling with abundant mountains of outdoor gear, clothing, and sports equipment. The pungent scents of new plastics and rubber waft through every aisle, threatening a headache. Jamie ventures down the canyon of footwear with Dani in tow, passing trainers and cleats on their way to hiking boots. 

Dani peels back the aluminium foil and wax paper covering a roll of hard boiled sweets and slips between her lips a little green ring she’s exposed. She holds out the roll to Jamie to offer the next in procession: a red one that sits on her tongue like cherries. 

While they examine shoes on display and search for equivalents in their sizes, Jamie idly tumbles the sweet about her mouth. She rotates a boot in one hand to inspect the leather body and rugged texture of its sole. From the provided seating near the end of the aisle, Dani tries one on. They’re tan with red laces and fit her perfectly. 

“They’ve got decent tread, right?” Jamie asks her. “Won’t be sliding off any cliffs in a hurry?”

To answer the question, Dani fits her hand in her spare boot like a glove and lifts it to present a well-defined topography. “You know,” she says, “I have gone camping before. Well, in a trailer, so we didn’t actually sleep outside, but that’s beside the point. I’m more savvy than you think.”

“Yeah? You get up to any mountains?”

“Uh, no. Iowa’s pretty flat. We went to a lake.”

Jamie clicks her tongue in lighthearted teasing. “I don’t know... When we’re scaling those treacherous switchbacks, and the bighorns are our only company a kilometre above the valley—”

“We’re not actually going that high up, are we?”

She smiles. “Not if you aren’t up to it.”

“And you are?” Playful doubt carries Dani’s tone as she squeezes her foot back into her shoe without untying its laces.

Maybe so, maybe not. Jamie spent most of her life crammed into dense grey towns and cities. Bly was the first time she resided in a landscape whose foundational colour was green, but its rurality could hardly be classified as wilderness. Placid fields, meadows, and thickets enveloped the beaten path of civilisation, and Jamie never so much as gardened on any inclines steeper than twenty degrees. 

A mountaineer, she is not. However, Jamie does count herself as something of a survivalist. As a young adult she frequently camped in abandoned buildings, foraged meals in unlikely or risky places, and adapted to changing climates of personal well-being as one would adapt to hazardous rain or sleet on a trail. Through tribulations of bygone days, Jamie developed a rather universal aptitude for not perishing in crises. 

Her personal wisdom concerns the architecture of humanity; their jungles of steel and brick, where intent can be gleaned from the height of fences and the flow of roads. Her wisdom is derived from, and in servitude to, order. 

Order. Vanquisher of chaos. Administer of purpose. Her saviour. Jamie’s profession as a gardener is an homage to order. She conscripts overgrowth into her standards of grace, conquers it to do her bidding, and flexes power of life and death over every organism within her domain. 

But what happens when the landscape’s keeper is itself? Self-defined, self-created, amorphous through time yet seemingly eternal? That which witnessed itself come into existence? Heedless while demanding heed? Beauty formed by formless beauty? Jamie has always harboured reverential awe — and fear — of nature’s inscrutable, capricious will; provident and violent in the same stroke.

There’s a supposition circling overhead like a vulture aching to see whether its quarry lives or dies: perhaps, if Jamie is able to walk alongside nature, and not against it, some old invisible wound will seal up inside her and she’ll feel whole enough to—

She doesn’t know what, exactly. Hold water again is her first reflex of phrase. 

After they finish shopping, Dani leads a browsing cruise down various aisles. Beneath an arch of fishing poles erected in display, she sifts through dazzling lures pegged to the shelves while Jamie inspects tackle boxes. When Dani holds an iridescent lure shaped like a minnow to her earlobe, pretending it’s jewellery, Jamie laughs. 

In the checkout queue, Dani passes Jamie another sweet. This one is yellow and tart with the suggestion of lemon. 

Like before, the joy is a simple but significant one; warm and considerate and homely in a way Jamie didn’t realise she was starved of until Dani introduced her to its taste. Dani’s companionship is a broth of fond feeling, a sustenance not for the stomach, but for the soul.

Fate produces another green ring for Dani, who readily fits it between her lips without a shadow of dismay. Jamie hears it click against Dani’s teeth when she speaks, “I called my mom earlier, to let her know where I’m living now. And to give her a permanent phone number.”

Jamie prods at chocolate bars arranged in an impulse display, finding the term permanent undeniably cosy. 

“I told her about you.”

At that particular disclosure, Jamie’s eyebrows raise and her gaze meets Dani’s, seeking elaboration. “About me? For real?” She spares the people queuing behind them a momentary glance — two young parents about to purchase a baseball glove for their excited son of primary school age.

“You know,” says Dani. “How you’re my... roommate.”

Jamie can’t determine whether that word is coded or not. Dani’s expression remains mildly affable, and consequently opaque. 

“Verbatim?” Jamie hazards, holding a peanut-heavy bar between the fingertips of opposing hands. 

A nod clarifies Dani’s meaning, leaving Jamie adrift between relief and disappointment. Exposure would’ve been mortifying, certainly. Yet secrecy as a shelter doesn’t feel like a proper dwelling. It’s more akin to a bunker — a necessity for survival — in which she and Dani decorate its sturdy cold walls with civilian comforts while hostilities scream outside. 

Girlfriend.

Jamie silently plies the word around the interior of her mouth along with the lemon sweet, pondering their entwined flavour. It’s so new, so disarmingly tepid and indulgent like summer leisure. She watches Dani draw her wallet and mentally superimposes the term girlfriend over the pretty sight of her, as if to dress her in its kindly gown. But Dani outshines it, makes its fabric dim and dull in comparison. There is no single word in existence with enough glamour to suitably clothe Dani. Nothing less than novels and treatises could dare envelop all she is and what they have. 

For them, girlfriend as a classification is barely two days old and they’ve already outgrown it. But where do they grow to? Where does the climbing ivy go after it has consumed the wall? Jamie cannot say. She has always clipped ivy back before it could swim in the sky. 

That evening they rehearse their luggage at home, cluttering their bed’s olive green duvet to its four corners with diverse inventory. In orderly array lies several days’ worth of clothing plus provisional articles, weather-resistant jackets, a torch, a pair of enamel mugs embellished with rose designs, a dome tent rolled into a nylon sleeve with its poles for one night’s planned stint outdoors, among other tools and utilities. 

While Dani runs the tip of a highlighter along a map, tracing motorways eastward from San Francisco, Jamie flicks out the blade of a folding knife and catches the lamp’s gleam in its steel. 

“This all right to bring along?” she asks Dani, who looks up and replies, “It should be fine. We’ll put it in the carry-on.”

Jamie tucks away the blade and tosses the knife into the mix, then loads a compact camera with a fresh roll of film. “Made a sign for the shop,” she says. “Closed for renovations.”

“Renovations?” Dani echoes. 

“Makes it sound like we’re still around,” explains Jamie. She fits the camera into a leather case and buttons it shut. “Trust me, any business advertising an unattended holiday might as well be saying: help yourself.”

“Personal experience?”

She nods. “Personal experience.”

Jamie locates the spiral-bound notepad containing their grocery list, where two distinct penmanships clamour to be helpful. It reads, in its current state:

  • Pasta (macaroni or tagliatelle) ← i don’t know what that is. It’s the flat ones
  • pepperoni or dry salami
  • dried fruit / nuts / granola ??
  • Oatmeal & Cereal
  • 4 Oranges
  • 2 Apples
  • Peanut Butter
  • Instant coffee & teabags (steal from hotel)
  • Hard cheese (Gouda, Parmesan, and/or Asiago) “Asiago” what is that. Dani please
  • Crackers 
  • chocolates (for morale)
  • Milk (1 qt)
  • LOTS of water

It’s a reasonable start. Over the next week they’ll further amend it as they more stringently consider the capacity of their plastic ice chest and opportunities to resupply or buy meals in the valley itself. 

Dani reviews their tentative schedule. On the twenty-first of May they’ll fly into San Francisco, hire a car, acquire their groceries and other essentials they can’t fly with, then stay overnight at a hotel. The following morning, they’ll head out, stop in Merced for breakfast and a last chance at obtaining anything they might’ve missed in San Francisco, then enter the valley. And the next five days shall be subservient to their wanderlust. 

There’s nothing particularly novel about the logistics of the trip. They’ve planned longer and more complex excursions before. Back in the early days, when the threat of Dani dying seemed so real and imminent, they explored New England in search of its worthiest experiences as an unspoken parting gift. Compared to that scramble, this is rudimentary. There’s no confounding sense of urgency, no despair latent in every affection or sentiment shared between them.

Because Dani remains vibrantly alive, exhibiting no signs of perishing anytime soon. While circumstances may change one day, that day is not here. At present, they are happy, they are dating, and they are settling into a state of committed permanence. 

That word, again, soothes Jamie. As she absently twists the knobs of her bureau drawer, she feels inordinately still in body and mind. She’s a windless, cloudless day over an inanimate grassland. Peaceful, yet... waiting, for another frisson of weather to mark the passage of time and change; that bittersweet substance that grows the living through hurt and healing. 

“Jamie? You doing all right? You’ve been kinda quiet today.”

Dani’s voice wakes her. “Hm?” Jamie vocalises. “Yeah. Just, you know. Thinking about the trip.”

She folds the annotated map and stores it along with their luggage. “Good or bad thoughts?”

“Good,” Jamie decisively responds with an affirming nod. “Last one for a while, right? We’ll make the most of it.”

“Last one for a while,” repeats Dani, rising from her perch on the bed to approach Jamie. “But our first one—” She takes Jamie’s hands to squeeze them, smiling sweetly enough to encourage Jamie to wear one in reciprocation. “—as a couple. Officially. Took you long enough.” 

Jamie rolls her eyes as Dani’s hands raise to hold her face. “Took you long enough. That’s how this works. Lack of initiative is a collaborative crime.”

“Oh, Jamie.” Dani softly teases. “I just wanted to be sure you were ready. I want to be so careful with you. I know how sensitive you are—”

She scoffs. “I am not.”

“You are,” Dani insists. “You always feel and say so much.” She curls her fingers into the back of Jamie’s collar and reels her in for a kiss.

As soon as they part, Dani initiates another by sealing a caress around Jamie’s bottom lip. She is pure unfiltered certitude. This is the complexion of Dani’s intimacy. Full-tide, unrestrained, and shining bright enough to blind. She is hazy yellow sunrise, fusing all touched land into gulfs of light. She’s soft and warm and Jamie collides with her like night dissolving into dawn. 

Jamie is more than receptive when, true to form, Dani seeks her tongue. She can’t fathom how Dani always makes such a brazen request seem infinitely delicate and tender as impetus for company, never invasion. So Jamie folds her arms about Dani’s shoulders, weaves her fingers into golden blonde, and opens herself to her. Perhaps if Dani tastes her deeply enough, she’ll illuminate the longing in her flesh and name it succinctly where Jamie has failed.

You taste like suppressed devotion, is among what Dani wouldn’t say. You taste like the desperate cusp of contentment. You taste like an unresolved wound. 

These are truths, but Jamie broods so close to the issue’s core she cannot descry its totality. She’s describing emerald stalks of tall wild grass when she should be describing a meadow. She’s describing individual grains of shell-laden sand when she should be describing a beach. 

If she were brave enough to step back, she’d see it in one word, one everlasting promise, that would adhere all the preserved fragments of her heart into a basin worthy of... holding water, she thinks.  

 

Saturday, 21 May 1988

It’s nearly one in the morning when Jamie quietly rises from bed. She’s supposed to be resting for tomorrow’s flight, but an errand has been haunting her for days. Jamie suspects she won’t achieve peace of mind on holiday knowing she’d left without seeing to it. 

On the balcony, where her makeshift garden sleeps in wait for tomorrow’s sun, Jamie opens a satchel of seeds. They’re dingy amber in colour and unattractively oblong, like swollen corn kernels. She takes her folding knife to three of them, carving little notches in their tough hides until slivers of white vulnerable flesh peek out to reflect moonlight beaming in over Jamie’s shoulder. After stratifying them, Jamie leaves them to soak overnight in a shallow dish of water. In the morning, she’ll plant them in potting mix and peat. 

For minutes she stands watching over the little seeds glistening at the bottom of the dish, dreaming of the chance at life she’s given them and hoping they’ll survive long enough to cherish it. Under her constant care, there would be no question. But Jamie will be stepping away for days, leaving these infant motes to the mercy of weather and possible avian predation. Jamie knows she will either return to seedlings, vacant pits, or extinguishment via unforeseen elements. Nature shall take its course for better or worse. It giveth and taketh away, observing no pity, for nature knows not what that is. 

She’d like to keep them safe. She’d like to establish her garden as a return to Eden’s glory, where death does not exist, and people cannot bleed. But she won’t. She can’t. There are some things — inevitabilities, woes, injustices — that lie outside her control. 

I may lose you, she thinks. No. I will lose you. If not next week, then in months. The more I care now, the more it’ll hurt when it happens. And I have to be okay with that. Can I be okay with that? 

Of course, her thoughts address more than her seeds. 

By some twisting of related cognition, Jamie remembers her parents, who might’ve once genuinely adored each other before utter destruction. They saw their ship sinking and did nothing to save it. On the contrary, Louise spitefully blew new holes into the hull while Dennis sat in its flooding belly, waiting to drown. Jamie was born on that ship and lived her whole life itinerant on similar ones condemned to watery graves. 

You hop to the next before yours goes under, she’d learned quite early on. You survive at all costs.

But she doesn’t want to think of her current life as just another doomed vessel. She wants to maintain this one, fixing it as they go, polishing their lustre the moment it starts to tarnish. She doesn’t want to wander anymore like some wretched gull trapped between ocean and sky. She wants safe harbour. She wants to roost and build wonderful places for herself and Dani to live in. She wants to fill the ground with roots and clutch fast at the earth, anchoring them against land that forever surges with the memory of wrathful seas. 

Jamie obliges herself to a secret contingency: what flourishes now shall flourish forever.

She returns to bed as gingerly as possible. Dani stirs at the slight disturbance, but not to the point of waking. Nevertheless, she wakes herself moments later by unconsciously brushing her shins against Jamie’s feet and catching their chill. 

Following a tiny gasp, Dani utters, “Jamie. Why are you so cold?”

“Sorry,” she whispers. “Was just checking on the plants outside. Had some things I forgot to set up.”

“Put socks on.”

“Okay.”

“I’m kidding,” Dani clarifies. “Come here.” She draws Jamie into an embrace. After tucking her chin over Jamie’s shoulder, Dani slides one of her legs between hers. 

Jamie’s instinct is to jump in surprise at the sudden forward intimacy, but she suppresses the urge upon gleaning chaste intent. Dani’s leg is deliciously warm between hers. She hugs its generous gift with her thighs, stealing heat with a modicum of associated guilt. In recompense, she rubs Dani’s back through her nightshirt, replacing what she’s taken. 

“I could’ve just put socks on,” says Jamie. “You know I always do what you tell me to.”

She can feel Dani smiling into her shoulder. “You’d better,” Dani jokes. “But then I wouldn’t have an excuse to hold you.”

“You don’t need one.”

When Jamie turns to fondly kiss her cheek, she inhales the floral scent of Dani’s shampoo and prays they’ll always be this sweet and doting, alchemising inconvenience into opportunities to care for one another. 

Once they settle, and Jamie is as warm as their bed, she gazes at slats of pale light bleeding in from the window. The marble face of the moon peeks in through the blinds and speaks to her, as reality slurs at the edge of a dream: I would not be seen without the sun to love me.