This is an old story that I wrote approximately 200 years ago, otherwise known as the 1990s, for a creative writing class that I was taking for credit hours in English lit. Professor I Don’t Remember His Name said that this story “did not bother him that much” but that I leaned much too heavily upon The Yellow Wallpaper. Well, why have us read it, then? Anyway, he gave me a C- proving that indeed, there is only one Yellow Wallpaper and there is only one Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Later on, I submitted it once for publishing and was thoroughly rebuked as the editor remarked, “stories like the Yellow Wallpaper are very, very difficult to write.” So I guess they are, and I haven’t veered into wallpaper territory since.
Move in day came upon us. The weather was pleasant that morning, but the afternoon turned to rain. We watched and tried to maneuver the delivery so the furniture would not be saturated. The job of moving was finally done as the unpacking began. Alex and I did not have enough furniture for the house and couldn’t seem to agree on things to purchase. We began arguing. After being alike for so many years, it was strange that our tastes were going in opposite directions. Two days later, Alex had to get back to work and I was left to deal with the house.
“I don’t care, just do whatever you want to do,” he remarked smugly as he took the last drink from his coffee and headed out the door one morning. So I began. The woodwork on the staircase inside had to be stripped and redone. Cabinets had to be scraped down and painted. Lots of sanding and touching up. The hours lapsed into what seemed like an eternity, but I couldn’t even make a dent. I found my days to be much too short. The more work I poured into the house, the more work needed to be done. I began to wonder if we had stumbled on a good deal after all. However, I did take Ms. Trehnholm’s advice, exhausted as I was, to pamper the azaleas. They appeared to relish the attention, and I found them quite captivating making it difficult to tear myself away. Just when I thought blooming season was over, the flowers expanded into a beautiful, full-color pink carpet extending the entire length of the house.
Ms. Trenholm called me and I described the azaleas to her. She sounded thrilled that they were doing so well.
One day, as I was shaking out coffee grounds on the plants, I looked up to see a man waving and walking toward me.
“Hello, I’m Charles Gilby, next door.”
“Carolyn Houser, pleased to meet you.”
“Well, I see you have your work cut out for you here. I guess Ms. Trenholm briefed you,” he said.
“Briefed?” I asked quizzically. I was thinking that this man looked like Uncle Arthur from Bewitched.
“Oh, she is something. That one is, alright. She enjoyed these flower bushes. What are they called? She was always out here, well, when she wasn’t in the basement.”
“Or inside. I think she did ceramics or something. I don’t really know what she did in the basement,” he said a bit hurriedly. “You know we have a very active clubhouse here. You guys should come down. We play 42, bingo, book club. All sorts of things.”
“Well, I gotta scram now. Come on over later and meet Alice. We look forward to new neighbors. Oh yes, it will be great to have new ones.”
He was out of sight in no time. Leaving me to ponder the strangeness of it all and to wonder if perhaps his wife resembled Agnes Moorhead.
Not long after relocating, the tedious hours spent working in the house and yard began to catch up with me. I started to lose interest in everything and my energy level began to drop. Alex said, “Carolyn, you need to take some time off. This house has survived all these years, it can survive a few more.”
I agreed and even though I found this work so rewarding, I decided to take a short trip to visit my parents. While I was away, Alex did what he could with the azaleas, but he worked long hours at the office and he refused to give up his Sunday golf game. He certainly wouldn’t miss a tee off for a good azalea misting and forget about the coffee grounds.
My mother was concerned, “You just look awful, dear, can I make an appointment with my doctor?”
I declined, explaining that the long hours of manual labor were probably the culprit. I decided to make arrangements to go home early. When I arrived at the house, I noticed the azaleas were not nearly as lovely as they had been. They appeared to be a bit discolored, and they limply wafted in the afternoon breeze. They seem to be glaring at me. I shook my head, I must be crazy after all, but I told myself that I would pick up where Alex had failed them as soon as I could get some rest and get rid of the bug I had.
The next day my condition had not improved, so I went to see Dr. Edwards. He told me I was fine, but suffering from exhaustion. He gave me a prescription and said to go home and get lots of rest.
“You should be completely normal in a couple of days.”
I went back to the home and climbed into bed. Later that day I arose to find I was really not feeling any better. I noticed the azaleas as I stepped into the yard. It was even more obvious that Alex had not tended to them for some time. As I stood and gazed upon them, I could swear I heard muttering noises. “This wind!,” I exclaimed to myself, and I promised to do better the following morning. I entered the house and attempted some light housekeeping. As the minutes passed, I became more frail. The telephone rang and Ms. Trehnholm was on the other end.
“Hello, Carolyn, how are you dear?” she asked me.
“I’m fine,” I told her. I was slightly bitter. Why did she have to bother me anyway? Something in my tone gave my those feelings away.
“Are you sure?” she asked. A note of disbelief was apparent in her voice.
“Just a little sinus problem,” I answered.
“I hope you are taking care of yourself?” Abigal asked. “I just thought I would call to see if you were having any luck with the azaleas?.”
“The flowers are okay, I have taken your advice and it is working out nicely,” I answered.
I was quite cross when I hung up the phone thinking I might have to cope with that old woman for years to come. I could picture it now, every two weeks or so. Ring, ring…”How’s those damn pink flowers?” Ring, ring…”Husband not home…working or playing golf?” Ring, ring, ring…”Trouble in paradise?” I wondered how long the blasted flowers would bloom anyway, a few weeks, all summer, or all year? The end of time? They had already bloomed way too long. I made a mental note to research azaleas.
The next day, I just couldn’t get up. Alex kissed me goodbye on the forehead. “If you aren’t any better tomorrow, we should go back to the doctor. In fact, I’m going to make plans to take off and go with you myself.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I assured him. “I’ll be up and around after this morning. I promise.” I almost felt sorry for him and began to feel that I must have been too quick to criticize. He was really worried about me. I lay in bed and listened as he made his way downstairs and out the door. I felt lonely and desolate. I drifted off into an uneasy rest.
As sleep fell upon me, the room appeared to change. Shadows crept across the walls. Leaves and branches seem to fill the room. I was in a field of graceful, flowing grass. The grass moved with the wind, but then, all around I could hear it, the sound of marching boots. It was a military march, chanting, soldiers marching in step. I vainly looked over the field around me. There was nothing, yet there was something. The sound of gunfire, cannons. Then complete and utter darkness. I wanted desperately to get away back to peaceful twilight and calm breezes in a prairie of swaying grass.
“Carolyn, wake up, wake up, you are having a dream!”
“No, I’m not dreaming. There were shadows in here, shadows in a field, but no, then there was a war. I could hear them. All those poor soldiers!”
Alex’s expression mirrored his concern. “I’m taking you to the hospital. You are not to be alone until you are better.”
Dr. Edwards was unable to find anything wrong with me for the second time. I watched his soft, wrinkled face study me.
“I don’t understand,” he murmured. “There is no reason to hospitalize her,” he told Alex. “Let me add another prescription and in two days, I hope there will be marked improvement.”
Meanwhile, Alex had phoned my mother. When we drove into our driveway, she came out to meet us.
“You are so pale,” she said.
“Dr. Edwards said I should be okay in two days,” I replied.
“Well, I’m certainly not leaving until you are!”
There I was, a prisoner in my own house. I gazed out the front windows and I noticed the azaleas. They looked drawn and stagnant there in the humid evening. A small shiver ran up my spine. “What if I have some sort of terminal illness or maybe I am going crazy?” I thought to myself.
Mother refused to let me get out of bed and I offered little resistance since I didn’t feel much like it anyway. She brought me tea and read books aloud until I fell asleep. I drifted along in search of the meadow, but I found myself in a maze. Miles and miles of wall-size hedges made passage to the other side impossible. I felt shadows closing in once again. This time they were different than before and took many forms until they combined into one large figure. The shape morphed into a giant black spider. I was running through the passages full speed, my heart feeling as if it would burst as each route led me to a dead end. I turned and found the spider coming for me; I was firmly in its sight. I could see red eyes, and screamed, but nobody came, nobody heard. I began clawing my way through the hedge, my arms bleeding from the thorns.
My mother shook me. “Carolyn, Carolyn! Stop it! Stop it! Can you hear me? It is just a dream, please stop!”
I looked into her troubled eyes and broke into sobs. Later that evening, I could hear my mother and Alex talking hushed tones. I could barely make out their conversation. Sitting there in the dark, fragments filtered through to me:
“Under a lot of stress lately…”
“I just don’t understand…”
“Mental breakdown, I don’t see how….”
“An Abigal Trenholm phoned, she demanded to speak to her…”
“Some crazy old lady…”
I felt tears form in my eyes. I couldn’t understand why I was ill. It was so unfair. Somehow, I didn’t feel this sickness was something out of a medical book. I resolved to think less of my illness and convinced myself that it was just my frame of mind. I drifted again to sleep as if I were hypnotized.
I dozed peacefully for some time. I vaguely remember faces of people who entered my room. My mother, Alex, Dr. Edwards. They appeared to exist only as memories. Memories of a past I could no longer reach. I deciphered their faint voices at my bedside.
“I’ve never diagnosed anything like this…”
“Comas can be…”
“….a Mrs. Trenholm died….”
At times, I could see them, but as I reached out, the people I tried so desperately to contact, floated passed me. It was as though my eyes had vacated my body and were floating around the room. I continued to shift in this manner until darkness came upon me. I was afraid the spider would come again or the marching soldiers. Going in and out of consciousness, I found myself at the edge of a dark lake. Blackened willows bent over the water. The shadows engulfed me. I wanted to scream, but I had no voice, voiceless among the voiceless. The shadow shapes began to crowd in, this time, I noticed they had faces. I yelled at them, “Who are you? What do you want from me?” The faces regarded me with expressionless eyes. Get away, get away now… I must get away….get away.
With as much courage as I could gather, I began to run along the black lake. To my horror, I found the shore was slippery and I felt myself sinking into the dreary water. I cried. The lake was full of the shadows of lost souls. Their long, lifeless arms reached for me. This was it. I was on my way to becoming one destined to spend the hereafter in those dark, murky waters. The arms groped for me. At one point, I decided not to fight anymore, then I remembered the sunlight and the happiness I had experienced in the other world. With all the strength I could muster, I lunged from the water and grabbed the ledge. Somewhere from within, a desire propelled me up from the abyss and back toward the living.
I awoke from the coma. Alex was asleep beside the hospital bed. He looked dejected, I fear his golf game had been suffering. I called to him.
“Carolyn! Oh, thank God you are awake!”
I smiled. I had made it after all.
It was only on the way home that I thought of the azaleas. I got out of the car and walked around the corner of the house. They were once again in magnificent, ecstatic bloom.
“Alex!” I exclaimed. “Look at the flowers!”
“Yes, I thought you might be surprised,” he answered. “While you were in the coma, I hired a gardener to care for them. He watered and misted them and put the coffee grounds on them just like poor old Mrs. Trenholm wanted.” He continued, “You know, I was thinking, maybe we should sell the house, it is just too much. Maybe find a little beach house, you like the coast, right?” I thought for a moment and admitted to myself that I might have even leaned toward a nice townhouse surrounded by lots and lots of concrete and no shrubs.
“I don’t think so,” I answered.
Alex looked at me in surprise. “Are you sure, I mean…”
“I want to keep the house. I must keep this house.”
Today, the gardening club meets, and I am the guest speaker. The topic is, “Tried and Tested Tips for Azaleas.” You see, I have come to care for them a great deal now, I understand them. I never intend to neglect them again.