It grew in fragrant clumps at the center of Aunt Carol’s weed garden, attracting flocks of shiny green beetles and colonies of powdered bumblebees. When the summer was at its dampest, the air currents in her neighborhood became redolent with its sweetly exotic scent, and people were always reminded of its magical properties. The smell of the unassuming little herb-weed penetrated their tall windows and diluted the sterilized smell of their air-conditioned homes, and the neighbors again renewed their stories about Aunt Carol’s remarkable good health. It’s not every day a nice old lady gets to live past 110 and maintain all of her faculties! Yes, all those in the neighborhood agreed among themselves, that plant of hers had certainly done her and the rest of them a world of good. Some even said if you could secure yourself a sprig of the crimson amaranth any ailment you might be suffering from would run itself right out of town. Others scoffed at this idea — but of course they were the first ones to consider how exactly they might go about procuring a bit of the plant. Nilima Song knew better than that. She’d heard the real story from Aunt Carol herself, after spending several weeks in her garden painting everything but the amaranth.
Aunt Carol (who never had any children of her own but was always fond of playing with the neighborhood rascals) agreed to let Nilima do a project on her garden in return for four hour-long conversations and four games of pinochle. It was during the third conversation that Nilima finally pursued the question of the crimson amaranth.
“Would you like more lemonade? I made it sweeter this time. You know there used to be rations on sugar? Well of course you know that, I’m sure you did fine in history at school. Should’ve had me teach history at one of those elementary schools downtown – I saw it all.”
Nilima nodded then gulped down the still-bitter drink. “I guess I did ok in history, but there’s a question I’ve been wondering about ever since I’ve known about you and your garden. I hope you won’t be offended.”
“That sounds promising.”
Nilima blushed and took another sip of her cool drink. “Where did the crimson amaranth come from? And why can’t I paint it? And –” she paused, unsure if the question even had an answer, “are the stories true?”
Aunt Carol leaned back in her wicker porch chair and adjusted her red cat-eye sunglasses. “You know no one has ever asked me that question? Never. And I’ve heard the gossip that goes around this little corner of the suburb. Don’t think just because I don’t invite people over every other day I’ve dropped off the grapevine.” She mused a bit more, rubbing her tongue back and forth across her loose dentures. “I went to Africa when I was younger, did I ever tell you that? Something about the exoticness of it appealed to me. I wanted to know why people called it the Dark Continent. So I went on a safari tour that my parents unknowingly funded; they thought I was going to Paris, back before the second war. Anyway, I went off on my little adventure and oh, I could fill hours telling you about it. But the point is, I came back with the amaranth. Just a wee little thing nearly dying of thirst in the pot I had to bring it back in. I’ve replanted it only twice since then. Once at my parents’ house, then in this garden here.”
“So it survived that whole trip? How did you know it was magic?”
Aunt Carol said nothing, merely pursed her lips. “Magic it is, though perhaps not in the sense that people might think. Not like Merlin or some powerful elixir. It works when it’s in the ground, still planted, but only rarely works after it’s been dug up and dried out. Plants need earth to live, and this plant is no different than the others. It gets its energy, its nutrients from the soil. Someone could take a piece of it and replant it elsewhere, sure enough, but for it to survive the trip it needs that person to have a pure purpose. And before you even ask, no, I can’t tell you what mine was. Sometimes old stories go best untold. And I don’t want you to paint it because you’ll never capture what it is. Better not to even try.”
Nilima hid her response in an overly large gulp of lemonade then dissolved into a fit of coughing till Aunt Carol came over and gave her a whack on the back to dislodge the fluid in her lungs. They moved on to more stories about the second Great War and the men Aunt Carol had loved, never again returning to the story of the amaranth, even when Nilima returned for subsequent visits after the required four conversations and games of pinochle.
Angelo lived three houses down from Aunt Carol, alone with his droop-eared mutt, Mavel, and his own beautiful anti-weed garden. No reliable witness had ever seen the interior of Angelo’s house, but from the small glimpses the neighbors got of it when women from several neighborhoods made their stately way through the front doors, it was believed the drab brick exterior hid a fabulously luxurious bachelor suite. Greta Park reported the foyer had an ultra-modern, ultra-chic Eiffel Tower chandelier. It dangled from the tall ceiling in thousands of glimmering crystals, providing the newly arrived nymphs with the opportunity to bask in its shine and pretend that they were actually in the City of Love. Susan Delaney, who did all of Angelo’s landscaping, claimed she’d once seen an entire room of plush pillows and silk linens when she was cleaning out his gutters. She said some of the pillows were larger than a king size bed, and had to be twice as comfortable. Little Dan Quail, who delivered newspapers for that neighborhood and four others and was a notorious storyteller, said Angelo once invited him inside for a Coke and had taken him to a room where the walls were lined with tall aquariums, and Mavel the dog made some of the smarter fish do tricks by barking at them. Quite ludicrous, many of the neighborhood mothers said. Fish can’t be taught to do tricks. But how could they possibly know? No one from the Old Orchard neighborhood had ever actually been inside Angelo’s bachelor suite, with the supposed exception of Dan. The only beings to witness that hallowed interior were the parade of blondes and brunettes and redheads Angelo brought from other neighborhoods. Everyone else just got invited to his garden parties.
Angelo was fond of women, and loved his irascible canine, but more than anything else he loved putting nature into order. When the morning came around again the Brittneys or Chelseas or Erikas made their escape, their cheeks a bit rouged with excited embarrassment, their soft hands slipping numbers or schedules into the pockets of his custom-made boxers. As soon as the woman tripped out the front door Angelo slipped out the back door as if making his own escape. Tall oak trees and peeling sycamores shaded the grass at the edge of his property. Each tree was exactly 10 meters from the next, pruned so that their branches would never become too tangled in one another. Surrounding every tree were rectangular swaths of wildflowers of different shades and varieties, each rectangle containing exactly 99 individual flowers. (Susan Delaney counted them every morning.) This angular floral barrier contained an even more elaborate and immaculate collection of rare flowers and shrubs within it, laid out in color-coordinated patterns to form a universal order. A narrow stream of water divided the garden in two and was followed by a meticulously clean cobblestone path. The cobblestones led to a small pond filled with dappled orange and white koi. Surrounding the pond were an odd number of ferns and one large, well-fertilized bird of paradise flower.
Here was Angelo’s retreat, his eternally blooming Eden. The weather was almost never cold enough for frost to damage the tender greenery, but when it approached the threshold Angelo surrounded the garden with little space heaters, lining his yard with snaking yellow extension cords. In a way, it could almost be said that Angelo cared more about his neighbors than the beautiful women he brought home, because the neighbors got invited to his lush garden, and the women did not.
Nilima Song was always invited to the garden parties, just as she continued to be invited to Aunt Carol’s house for a perfected lemonade recipe and cards, but she never went to either anymore. It had been three years since the summer she came home from Bangladesh with her head wrapped in so many bandages she barely fit through the narrow front door of her aunt’s house. No one from the neighborhood had caught so much as a glimpse of her since then. The last anyone saw she was being guided to the house by her sobbing aunt. It was rumored that she was blind.
“I knew she should’ve gone to Taiwan to see her father’s family!” Greta Park had hissed to Elaine LeClerc as they watched the girl precariously walk up the uneven sidewalk. “I just knew it. That poor girl. More bad luck than a broken mirror and three heads-down pennies, what with losing her parents and all.”
“Oh, now you just hush about Bangladesh,” Elaine responded tartly from her seat on the front porch. Greta, who was tending the snapdragons in the pots that sat on either side of the porch stairs, shot her a dirty look. “For all we know it was an accident. Can’t go accusing people of anything yet.” Elaine’s niece’s boyfriend’s brother had served in Bangladesh as a Peace Corps worker for two years, and the photos he brought back were simply breathtaking. Splendid. Elaine hated to think of such a beautiful place with such wonderfully exotic people as a den for violence. “I’m sure she loved it.”
Greta snorted, the gentle gale causing the flowers to bob on their stalks, as if agreeing. No more was said between them on the subject, but each reported her own opinion to the rest of the neighborhood, leaving it up to them to decipher the mystery for themselves.
Before Bangladesh, Nilima had been poised to set foot in the hallowed halls of Angelo’s home, second only to Dan. They were friends in a way, if their ambiguous relationship could be given any sort of identification. As a student painter and an amateur ornithologist, Nilima knew exactly which flowers Angelo needed if he wanted to attract a flock of hummingbirds. In return for helping him find such choice flora, she was allowed to sit in the garden and sketch once a week for several hours. Sometimes Angelo sat outside with her, watching her hand slide gracefully across her blank tablet, covering it in lines and dashes and miniscule dots that mysteriously turned into rows of trees and plants and dizzy swarms of insects. Other times the Morse code-like scrawl turned into negative spaces, the world between the trees and the plants and the petals and leaves. The empty space that Angelo had never looked at before. He had always seen space as a thing to be filled by carefully arranged plants, as if he were constructing a textured tangram. Looking at the spaces she captured just as magnificently between his rows of shrubs and flowers was enlightening in an infuriating sort of way — because he realized she saw his garden more clearly than he ever had.
“Don’t you like the flowers?” he’d asked once after watching the whorls of her pen fill up the blank page with dark emptiness and feeling the blood rise higher and higher in his cheeks.
She turned up at him as if realizing he were there for the first time and gave him a little half-smile. “This is the flowers. It’s just what they create between each other.” She shook her head as if laughing at the silliness of his question. He noticed her eyes were smoky green. And then he bolted before she could find anything else to mock him with, or maybe because he was afraid of being swallowed by those fathomless green eyes. They weren’t exactly eyes a person could lose himself in, but he was afraid of them all the same.
The next time she came to one of his garden parties Nilima had three canvases tucked beneath her arm. Each one showed a different view of the garden: one of the pond and the reflection the fish created on the surface, one as if she’d been sitting in a tree staring down at everything, and another of the empty space.
“For you,” she told him, staring at him a bit too forthrightly. “I thought you might like to have a bit of your garden in your house.”
“That’s what I have windows for,” he answered uncomfortably, feeling the blood rush to his cheekbones again. Thankfully he hadn’t shaved before the party; the stubble would hide some of the blush.
Nilima continued to hold the paintings out to him as if she hadn’t heard. Finally, in order not to cause a scene, Angelo took them and mumbled an excuse to the people he brushed past on the way into his house. He hefted the paintings up the stairs to his bedroom loft and set the stretched canvases down on his bed, standing above them with one hand on his hip and the other scratching his chin. They were like pieces of his garden, but instead of seeing the painted plants Angelo kept seeing glimpses of Nilima and her dark brown hair, her copper skin, her green, green eyes. Shaking his head, Angelo moved the paintings to his closet, behind the pressed, button-down shirts he always wore to the office or out on fancy dates. Why had he ever invited her over? There was a system, and she did not fit into it. What had he been thinking, trying to integrate a beautiful young woman into the neighborhood group that consisted mainly of married couples? It wouldn’t work anymore. She would have to stop coming. He would tell her the next time she stopped by.
But she never did. Much to Angelo’s relief, Nilima left for Bangladesh the following week without so much as a quick goodbye, and when she came back several months later — well, everyone said it would be several more months before she was ready to come out into the world again. The stream of rumors ebbed and ran dry after the first few tense months, and no one dared approach her without some sort of invitation. Bad manners. Aunt Carol was initially the only one brave enough to attempt a meeting, and after being turned away three times in the first four months of Nilima’s return home even she gave up. No one really knew what happened, and the months of waiting for her to reemerge turned to one year, then two, then three. It was around that time Angelo decided he needed to fall back into Nilima’s good graces.
The bevy of women he was accustomed to seeing had shrunken recently (the economic recession, of course, had something to do with this), and those who were still available only wanted to know about the poor girl who lived across the street from him. Did she really go all the way to Bangladesh? they asked. That’s near Australia, isn’t it? I think I read once that there are kangaroos there that migrated from Australia on pieces of driftwood millions of years ago. No, they didn’t want to see Angelo’s dancing fish or look at his collection of rare manuscripts. They wanted to hear about Nilima Song. Once again, the green-eyed painter was disrupting his system.
“Is Nilima here?” he asked Ms. Song, clutching a handful of peonies and wearing his most smarmy smile. Ms. Song, who was well aware of Angelo’s reputation, couldn’t help but scoff at the trouble he’d gone to. Artfully messy black hair; the slightest hint of stubble for which he’d designed a complex equation so that he could calculate exactly how long it’d be on arrival and how long it’d be by the time he left; a casual white shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows and several wisps of chest hair poking out of the unbuttoned V; and the nicest designer jeans a hedge fund manager could afford to buy. All in an attempt to impress a girl who couldn’t see. But at least she would have someone to talk to. It’d been too long since anyone had tried to contact her, and though she was ready to receive them, she didn’t yet have the fortitude to seek them out.
“She’s out in the aviary. I’ll take you back there.”
Angelo followed the older woman through her house, which was filled to the brim with books and avian knick-knacks. Piles of feathers rested flightless atop counters and shelves. Dusty bouquets of them filled the vases scattered around the house. The only area that appeared completely spotless, free of dust and other allergens, was the kitchen. It was filled to the brim with the best tools on the market, everything from double-handled beaters to Bunting Knives.
“You must cook a lot,” he said to Ms. Song.
“As much as required to keep ourselves from being hungry,” Nilima’s aunt responded dryly. “Nilima doesn’t like take-out food. Neither do I.”
Angelo had an equally impressive kitchen, and on nights when he wanted to bathe the atmosphere in immediate intimacy he would slave over the perfect meal for his woman. Crepes norveges, or braised mutton, or even canard a l’orange. He never cooked a meal for himself alone in that kitchen. On free nights he sat in front of his plasma-screen TV with Mavel, clicked on the fireplace, and ordered food from one of the plethora of restaurants in the city.
“She’s out there somewhere, probably in the back. Let her know you’re coming in so she isn’t scared out of her wits.” Ms. Song pointed to a small domed building at the back of the yard from which the arias of dozens of birds emanated. “Don’t be out there too long. She and I are going to visit her grandmother at three.”
“Yes ma’am,” Angelo answered.
“Don’t call me ma’am.”
“Right. Thank you, Ms. Song.” He walked away from the woman, feeling her eyes burn a fiery aureola of suspicion around him. But Angelo could handle the heat. How many times had he walked through the Dantean flames of a scorned woman’s pride? He was all but inflammable.
“Nilima?” he called out as he walked through the frosted glass door. “It’s me, Angelo.” He paused a moment, waiting for her response, and in the void of human speech came a wave of cacophonous bird cries, as if they were hurrying to fill the vacuum of impotent words. The sound drew him further into the aviary, past the first dim hallway and through a curtain of beads. Its strands dripped smoothly across his bare neck as he moved out of one world and into another.
The first thing he noticed was the domed ceiling, which he later learned was made from imported Venetian glass. It caught his eye because it was the only part of the structure framed in any sort of symmetry, the metal between the stained glass carving hundreds of geometric shapes. The light broke itself against those patterned shapes and fell onto the trees and patches of bare earth, creating an ocean of interrupted light. Birds of all varieties soared back and forth through the mangled prisms. Some had plumage so brilliant it made his garden seem dull and untempting; others were cloaked in sepia tones but had eyes that hinted at speed and a certain winged intelligence. A gang of peacocks clad in ornate costumes ran across the path before him, chasing after something that looked like his idea of a quail, emitting queer coos as they went. Green, green branches and dying green grass and green moss that covered the brown bark of the trees, green surrounding him in a way that felt so different from his garden, so much wilder. And in that green world Angelo finally found Nilima’s green eyes, watching everything and seeing nothing. The rest of her face was covered by a blue veil that wrapped around her hair and fell in loose curtains down her neck.
“Nilima,” he said again, feeling his pulse quicken in a way it hadn’t for years. She turned to him but stayed sitting on a wooden bench below the marred shade of a young oak tree.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, looking in his direction as he approached. The fabric in front of her mouth rippled gently.
“I brought you flowers. I – I wanted to hear about Bangladesh.” He held the flowers out before her, but she made no movement to take them. They remained so for some time, one sitting in surprised silence, the other growing ever more impatient. He finally reached down abruptly and took her hand. It was warm and soft. Instead of withdrawing from his breech of physical etiquette she let him pull her toward the flowers. He let go as soon as the gift was securely stationed in her fist.
“They smell nice,” she told him before laying them across her lap. “What do you want to know?”
He sat on the bench beside her, unsure of what to ask. Angelo the Lothario, tongue-tied! It was what so repulsed him about her, her ability to make him feel like an insignificant, prepubescent boy all over again. “Was it hot?” he finally asked. What an inane question.
“It was,” she answered quietly, so that he had to lean in to hear over the call of the birds. Sweat began to roll down his back from the heat of the aviary. “And when the monsoon season came the heat was swallowed by rain. At night I saw tigers swimming through the flooded fields, looking helpless.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yes. No. It’s complicated,” she sighed. The expression by which he would have gauged his next comment was hidden by that blue shield, and all that he saw in her eyes was emptiness. “I’ll never go back again,” she finally whispered. Then she stood.
“I have to go. We’re leaving for my grandmother’s soon.”
“Will you come visit again? If you bring bird seed you might be able to see some of them a bit closer.”
“Next week. On Monday again. Monday afternoon. Probably later since I usually work till 4 or 5.”
She moved first, slowly walking through the path, stepping cautiously over impartial vines. He followed patiently then walked out of the house without saying another word. The flowers were still on the bench in the aviary.
Three months into the summer Angelo’s visit to the Song house had become habitual; his garden was more radiant than it ever had been; the deluge of women to visit his house had slowed to an irregular trickle. And for what? He hadn’t gleaned more than a few choice phrases from Nilima, though he’d done his best to pay his way into her heart with fresh flowers every week and birdseed and praise. He knew she was perhaps the only person in the neighborhood to have a real relationship with Aunt Carol, and she was therefore the only one who could help him with his most embarrassing of problems. It wasn’t until they’d passed through a sultry August into the young shadow of September that he realized the trajectory of his plan. It was over a dinner at his house, in which she stubbornly insisted on bringing half the food from her house for a potluck, and during which Mavel refused to take any sort of orders and spent the entirety of the evening throwing himself at Nilima’s legs.
“I really don’t know what’s gotten into him,” Angelo apologized as he cleared away the dishes. “He’s usually so calm.” The dog continued to rub himself against her, tail thumping away.
“Don’t worry about it. A dog is a dog.” The veil fluttered slightly, a motion he now recognized as a hidden smile. He took the stack of plates from her and then took her hand, leading her through the maze of rooms into the living room that was hardly ever used. They sat on the tan suede couch, Nilima running her hands over the soft upholstery.
“Do you miss being able to see?”
He feared for the briefest moment that she would take offense and bolt out of the house, that all his well-laid foundations and titanium reinforcements would collapse under the strain of humiliation. And he would never have all those women under his power again. Instead she merely shrugged.
“Of course I miss it. But it’s forced me to experiment with more physical forms of art, like sculpture and pottery. I like how much harder my other senses work. But sometimes I’m scared, scared of the dark in the world that used to be so bright. Scared of the lack of colors. Scared of what everyone else is a part of and I’m not.”
He knew it was a blunt question to ask, that he should probably buffer it with more small talk and circles – but one direct question had already worked. Angelo trusted in his luck. “What happened in Bangladesh?”
She sat motionless for a moment, eyes vacantly unfocused on the far wall, which hung heavy with old Australian advertisements for Outback brews and the latest travel locations. Her hands slowly moved up beside her face and began pulling away the yellow veil she’d asked her aunt to help her choose for the night to match the rest of her ensemble. They moved deliberately, each one its own entity performing a ritualized ceremony. As the fabric fell away first from her nose, then her high cheekbones, Angelo had to hold his breath to keep from gasping. He was sure she felt him shrink slightly away, noted the give of the couch as his weight trembled in horror. Lines of scar tissue spiderwebbed across her entire face, from the eyes down. The nose was caught in a permanent state of melting disfiguration; the lips that he remembered being so red were split by patches of thick tissue. Each cheek was equally hollow and stretched, the skin shiny and taut. A thousand horrible names flooded his mind, but the one that resonated most clearly was monster.
“In Dhaka, sulfuric acid is only about 44 cents a pound and nitric acid is just a bit more than that.” He watched in petrified revulsion as her mouth moved, stretching the scars and making her face seem more distorted. “You know there have been more than 2,600 cases of acid attacks in Bangladesh since 2000? I didn’t. I had no idea.” She turned away from him but not before he saw two tears running down the ditches in her face. “A man asked me to marry him while I was there. Someone I knew through my family and who had been a friend of one of my relatives. Of course I refused. I was only 20, I was still going to school for art. The next day he cornered me in the street and threw the bucket of it at me. I don’t remember what happened. I woke up in the hospital wishing I’d died.” He looked down at her hands, gripping the yellow fabric and trembling. “And then when the pain went away there was the blindness, and the knowledge that I’m hideous. People would run from my face.” She turned back again and screwed her mouth into a grimace. He shuddered. “No one will ever love this face.”
Steeling himself for her reaction, for his own, he took a deep breath and slowly leaned in against her, lowering his lips down to her own ravaged ones. They were lumpy but smooth, and her mouth tasted like the chocolate mousse they’d eaten for dessert. She cried as he continued to kiss her, cried when they moved up into his bedroom of innumerable pillows and silk linens.
“Is this ok?” he asked as she pulled down her shirt. The pale light illuminated more lines of scars on her neck and bare breasts.
“Yes,” she whispered, no longer crying.
When they both lay panting at the end, she wiped the mixture of hot sweat and dry tears on his silk sheets and laughed.
“I can’t even see your infamous room.”
“Maybe there’s a way you can see again. What if we steal the crimson amaranth?” he suggested softly, propped up on his elbows. The moonlight softened her rough, melted face, and when he closed his eyes and stroked her skin he could almost believe she was whole, the way she had been before.
“You don’t really believe that do you?” she countered, testing him.
“I’ve seen it work. Mavel got hit by a car right after I got him, when he was still a puppy. Right out in front of Aunt Carol’s house. I ran out in the street but she got to him before me and picked him up. There was blood all over her, I knew she couldn’t do anything, a vet couldn’t do anything at that point. But I followed her back to her garden, and watched when she laid him out under the amaranth plant, then gave him some water. She went back inside and I just stayed there, watching, till Mavel stood up with a bit of a limp and walked over to me as if nothing more was wrong than having a thorn in his foot. It works.” He pulled her closer to him and placed a kiss on her forehead.
“But it was still in the ground. Did she ever tell you what happens if it gets removed from the ground?” she replied, hardly daring to breath.
“It needs a pure purpose. She told me when I asked if I could take some home for Mavel. But I don’t think we could get much closer to a pure purpose than giving you your sight back again,” he replied, stroking her long dark hair.
“Tonight. When the moon is just starting to go down, so we’ll have enough light to see but she won’t see us.”
“You’ll have to lead me.”
“I’ll make sure you don’t fall.”
They stole out of the house three hours later wearing dark sweatshirts, Nilima with a black silk handkerchief wrapped around her face. The grass was damp with dew and the worms squealed silently below their unprotected soles. Mavel watched their retreating figures from the window above the kitchen, Nilima with her hand in Angelo’s. They disappeared from sight after moving through the open fence that led to Aunt Carol’s garden and Mavel went back to dreaming of Nilima’s legs on his couch in the corner.
Neither man nor woman said anything as they moved slowly through the ragged herb garden. It was in complete disarray, and in the darkness Angelo struggled to orient himself. He knew the exact layout of Aunt Carol’s garden. He had memorized it the day he brought Nilima peonies. But Aunt Carol was subject to whims and artful experimentation; her garden changed on a monthly basis. It was some time before Angelo was able to locate the amaranth bush, and in that time Nilima had counted the squeaks of a dozen bats swooping through the insect-laden air, several owls pouring out their sorrows to the voles, hundreds of crickets serenading their mates, and one raccoon wishing the garbage man hadn’t come that morning.
“It’s here,” Angelo whispered. The sound was so loud in her sensitive ears that she stiffened for fear that Aunt Carol would awaken. She felt the soft plant placed in her open palm, pieces of it crumbling off to the ground. Her legs felt frozen. Immobilized by the immensity of the small, small plant. The garden smelled of dewy flowers and cold night dreams and insect romances, and the amaranth felt light in her hands. For a moment she almost believed she could see, but no. It was only the sensation of movement as Angelo shifted around her, presumably collecting more of the contraband. Nilima was impatient and often anxious, but here she felt no urge to leave. Nothing could stop her illumination.
Lost in her thoughts, it took a minute before she realized Angelo was pulling on her hand and trying to lead her away. She was so giddy with their success that she wanted to roll through the springy grass, croon to the blind worms and shout out to the hidden face of the moon. You can show your face! The warm hand that anchored her to the path gave her fingers a squeeze of triumph. Their feet met with the concrete of Angelo’s front driveway and she pushed up into his arms quizzically, still gently carrying the amaranth in her left hand. “Why are we stopping here?” she asked with a smile that felt so deep it nearly cut her in two.
“I’m bringing you back to the aviary so you can see all the birds when the sun rises tomorrow morning,” he told her. “It shouldn’t take long to work.” He led her across the street and through the shadowed yard, below Ms. Song’s bedroom window and out back to the aviary where most of the birds slept on their perches.
Nilima turned to him before opening the door to the aviary and pulled the silk handkerchief down from her face. “Thank you, Angelo.” She placed a light, sweet kiss on his cheek. “I knew you were better than my aunt thought. I’ll see you tomorrow.” A flush rose on her wretched silver cheeks. He closed his eyes and took her empty hand in his own, placing one last kiss on it.
Angelo walked back to his garden bathed in his sense of purpose and success. He took the unrooted amaranth and dug a shallow hole in the dirt below his bird of paradise plant, tenderly placing the emaciated roots in the earth. He lay out below the winking stars and the descending moon, feeling his impotence shrink away in the warm power of the plant. Nilima would have been the last; it had been enough of a struggle to keep the women coming back in the weeks before he’d focused on her. Now she would mark the first of many conquests to come. He lay awake till the sun rose, savoring his renewal.
Nilima, too, stayed awake for the remainder of the evening, listening to the rustle of the few nocturnal birds. Shirking the bench for the moist ground, she lay on her back below what she determined to be the center of the glass dome, the amaranth positioned across her breast where she could smell its spicy aroma. Bits of the tiny petals had come off in her hand as she carried it, and these pieces now lay in each of her open palms, fingers only partially curled so that they wouldn’t obscure the beautiful sunlight. She waited with a pounding heart as the first traces of warmth touched her skin, as fingers of daylight twisted their way through her tangled dark hair. The birds had long since abandoned their evening inactivity and were darting across the building in search of food. Their shadows beat across her ribs, and as the sun rose higher their wings beat harder and suffocated her with their unseen significance. Around noon several landed near her open hands. They cocked their heads to inspect the unusual tan plant that had shed its seed across her chest, their beaded eyes ignoring the silent rain that stained her tattered cheeks.