by Helen Grochmal
Flora Cockerell was a gardener par excellence in the independent living community. She didn’t need to go to the Home Depot every week in the summer buying the perfect fertilizer, aerators, bug sprays, and the like. There were some there who went even in the winter, coming home with a carload of gardening stuff. Flora’s plants came up lush and green no matter what she did to them; they just wanted to be around her and have her touch them. Not that she neglected their physical needs. Her garden was so perfect that at least one person wouldn’t talk to Flora all summer long out of envy.
Flora was oblivious to this envy. She was a natural woman in her sensible dark cotton pants and colorful jersey tops, although she did prefer undyed long flowing skirts or dresses in her social activities, but one could not bend over plants all day in those.
One day she decided to dig deeply in the dirt where probably a bird had dropped an unknown seed that was growing into a vine or some sort of tree forbidden in the community, where grounds keepers were to make sure nothing “troublesome” took over that would require days of maintenance to remove. She apologized to the plant as she dug it up, for days really. The roots went down many feet. The days turned into weeks, but Flora was not one to complain. In truth, she was fascinated by it, never having seen such a plant. She thought about taking a cutting to the nearest botanical garden but that would take her a day away from her own beloved garden that she loved tending and touching as much as the plants loved her doing it.
While burrowing around Flora struck something hard with her tools. She lay on her stomach and reached down with her hands to feel around at what she had hit. It felt cool even in the cool dirt, but touching it sent a thrilling sensation down to her toes. After about a month of digging, she looked down to see something stonelike in the hole where the vine above it had recently been. She had blessed that plant and said a farewell to it, having already used it for compost. Flora spent that spring on her belly reaching into a hole, the neighbors who went by asking why she was doing that for so long.
“Oh, you know. Some plants need deep soil treatments,” she would answer and ask about their health. She didn’t know why she couldn’t tell the truth, it was her secret somehow.
One day when she was making lunch in her kitchen she heard noises on the patio where she found grounds keepers filling in the hole on which she had spent so much effort digging.
“Please stop! I am digging that hole. Please take the dirt out.”
“We have to fill it in, lady. A hole like that is dangerous. Someone could step in it.”
“I’ll put a little fence around it and keep my porch light on. I am working on something.”
“Nothing allowed here would need a deep hole like that. What are you trying to do? Bury someone in it?” the man replied stubbornly.
“Leave it now and I’ll take it up with Management. I’ll be finished soon.” Flora could not stand the idea of not feeling that stonelike thing anymore. She thought she had felt a design on it.
“I don’t get paid enough to argue with you, lady. I’m not digging the dirt out again though. You get your permission.”
Flora forgot her lunch to dig out the soil poured back into the hole. By dark she could feel the figures on the stone again.
Visiting Management at the Home, Flora carried a note like a kid takes to school from a parent. This one gave permission for Flora Cockerell to dig a hole next to her patio since she was working on a “project.” Flora had typed it out so the friendliest of the Managers would just have to sign it. Miss Cockerell had a reputation as an agreeable woman in the senior community. Being new and in a hurry to get to a meeting, the Manager signed it. With it in hand, Flora went home feeling almost as if she had gotten good news from her doctor after a scare. She was elated.
Working all day and evenings she soon had the hole widened. She invested in some fencing and showed her “pass” whenever the grounds keepers went by. Getting her camera, Flora took pictures of the stone with lighting inside the hole so she could see more details. It looked like a person with flowing locks that resembled vines, the sort of vines that had grown above it for real, Flora realized with wonder.
She felt that a visit to the computer at the Home was in order. Nobody used it. She got on the Internet to look up architectural designs, putting in words like “man” with “vines,” although Flora thought it could be a woman too. She wished she could see the stone better.
Sites appeared on the screen informing her that a figure with vines might be a symbol of fertility or something primeval, belonging to many cultures besides Europe, including Egypt and Mesopotamia. There was even a Green Man of Borneo. It might be a universal symbol, an archetype.
She read about gargoyles of green figures serving as water spouts high above Christian churches, hunky punks (grotesque decorative figures), goddesses, a sheela na gig, the somewhat embarrassing (to Flora) figure of a woman with an explicit female sexual part illustrated along with the leaves and vines. She wondered what she had been touching with such abandon all of this time. Many of these figures had leaves and vines all over them, some vines substituting for facial features and some figures with faces covered in leaves coming out of their mouths and noses.
Having no idea what to expect next from Management about the hole, Flora found that the decision was taken out of her hands. Complaints were made about the piles of dirt around Flora’s patio that never got smaller. The Head Manager showed up at her door one day.
She joined him in a visit to her sacred site which now was surrounded by foliage, although a drought was parching the plants around other patios.
“When is your ‘project’ going to end, Miss Cockerell?”
“I don’t know. Soon.”
“What is this project? Some of us here are not as thorough as we should be when granting requests from, uh, women residents who try to manipulate them in a busy moment.”
Flora looked contrite. That is what she had done.
“Well, Miss Cockerell. What are you doing and when will it end?” The Head Manager looked down the hole. “Are you planting something? Are you building something probably prohibited or needing approval? Tell me exactly.”
Flora, being basically an honest woman, admitted, “You can see it if you look. I unearthed one side of it. It is a sculpture of a figure with vines streaming from it. It is beautiful. I would like to bring it up and put it on my patio.”
“Is it yours, Miss Cockerell? Does it not belong to the Community? To the Organization? To Management? You do not own the cottage nor the land. You have bought into this place for a certain period, until you pass on, er, move.”
Flora looked even guiltier. “I wasn’t going to keep it, just look at it.”
“You should have reported it. Why did you dig so deeply for it? It is too deep to plant anything.” He looked at her suspiciously.
“I was digging out a sort of vine that was growing. I didn’t plant it! A bird probably dropped the seed. I dug to save the grounds keepers work.” (She really hadn’t wanted them tramping on her plants.) “I like to plant and, oh, other things. We don’t have much ground for gardening.”
“Well, the thing down there will have to be assessed. I’ll send the Head of Maintenance over. We will probably just have them fill in the hole.”
“But you can’t! If I pay for the sculpture to be dug up, may I keep it on my patio?”
“That might be arranged,” he said, thinking he might save some money in the budget that way.
The Head of Maintenance came and was charmed by Flora into agreeing to let her have the stone dug up if he could supervise the digging.
Two men came to her home one day. These workers had been recommended by someone who knew someone who knew someone who had hired them in the past. They came equipped with shovels to dig. The Head of Maintenance showed up to watch for a while as did half of the residents who lived on her side of the Home. The next day the farther side showed up. The men worked and dug, giving dirty looks to the people staring at them. They took off their shirts in the heat and cursed under their breaths, hating to be on display. Finally, they told Miss Cockerell that she needed to hire equipment to dig this thing out and hoist it up. They couldn’t lift it without it.
“Who knows how big it is?” one said.
“Maybe the peepers can lift it,” grumbled the other man.
“How much would it all cost?” Flora asked with dread.
“We could rent the equipment for a few hundred dollars.”
“Okay, then, but please keep the cost down,” thinking that with equipment she might save on labor costs in the end.
Before they could do that, the Head of Management came back to talk to Flora.
“How are things progressing, Miss Cockerell?”
Flora told him about the hoist proposition.
“No, no, no, Miss Cockerell. You must cancel that. There are permits to get. You may cause all sorts of trouble with the authorities! Just have them fill it in!”
“No,” said Flora, “not after I have come this far. I have to do it!”
“You are becoming quite unreasonable. We must have a meeting about you, uh, I mean the situation. Cancel that work contract for now. Permits here take up to a year.”
Flora turned away, furious. She burst into tears after Management left, stopping only to call the workmen to postpone the work.
As it got dark, Flora went out to the patio, put down a rug to lie on and felt the statue, almost asking it for help. She just HAD to see it uncovered. She had to. Comforted, Flora went into her cottage, showered, and went to bed.
The next day she went to see Blanche, the resident Representative on the Advisory Committee to Management, telling her of her sad experiences. Flora convinced her to make a plea for her to continue her “project.”
“But if permits are needed, that is something to consider, Flora. I’ll do my best. Maybe if you agree to pay for them, they will give you the go-ahead.”
Flora flinched but silently shook her head yes.
So Flora, the Head of Management, the workers, a city inspector, and Blanche met to look at the stone in the hole, trying to peer in with the workers holding lights inside, with mounds of dirt piled up all around them.
“It looks like a carving,” said Management.
“I see a head with leaves around it. It looks like the leaves are coming out of its mouth,” observed Blanche, who had good sight for her age.
The city inspector said, “Stop right there. No excavations can be made without checking for pipe and water lines, and the historian will have to be called in since the stone must be old, a work of art. It may be a Native American totem pole or something.”
They all left Flora alone in despair, even the gawkers who had congregated.
Flora waited as inspectors came by making lines with spray paint to show the utility locations.
“It looks like you are okay as far as we are concerned,” they all said. “There will be a charge for this inspection since it is for personal reasons.”
Flora nodded, thinking of what she would eventually have to sell to pay for all of this “help.”
Then another day a man dressed in a suit came by her door introducing himself as the antiquities inspector. Actually, he was a volunteer from the University. “I’m Professor Ogden Frizzleton.”
Flora took him out to her patio, plugging in the industrial light so the Professor could see in the hole. He took off his coat to look, then feel, in the hole. He got very excited, it seemed to Flora.
“This shouldn’t be here. It looks like a Celtic stone of fertility, although there are common archetypes around the world. How did it get here in America?” He got upright, saying sternly to Flora, “Is this some sort of hoax, Miss Cockerell?”
“No, how can you say so?”
“How did you find it? Why dig here and so deeply?”
“I don’t know. I’m a gardener,” was all she would say, thinking of the right to not self-incriminate or to be made a laughing stock. She could imagine explaining again about the wild vines leading her to the leaf figure below.
“You must stop work. You and the Home will get a cease and desist order. We will have to explore this site carefully. You could have damaged the artifact or the hoax evidence against you!” He left.
Flora was distraught. What had she started? She looked outside from her dining room and saw the mess of dirt covering all of her flowers and greenery now. The plants were dying.
When she woke up uncharacteristically late the next day, she found all of the ground in front of her cottage except her patio cordoned off. She got calls from the other residents complaining about the dirt and asking her when it would all be over.
Flora said she didn’t know. It was all out of her hands. She got a letter from Blanche telling her the Advisory Committee to Management was upset by the condition of her property and demanded that she resolve the problem and return to being a cooperative neighbor.
Flora called up Blanche only to hear a click when she identified herself.
She felt hated. Everyone hated her. Flora went outside and felt the figure under the ground again.
Soon swarms of people collected around her patio. Among them were neighbors, men with heavy equipment and a hoist, and reporters, as well as students and faculty from the University. Flora kept her door locked and the curtains down. She thought about leaving her apartment to go away for a while but couldn’t desert the figure that seemed to be reaching out to her.
More parts of the community were roped off. More people confronted Flora as she went to get her mail or for other errands. She started to do errands after midnight, hiding out like a criminal.
After some days, Flora heard a lot of commotion on her patio and peeked out to see the crane hoisting a statue bundled in some protective material to her patio where all of the furniture had been piled up in a far corner. It was stabilized and several men including Professor Frizzleton prepared to unwrap the treasure. Flora stepped out onto her patio, seeing flashes as pictures of her were taken. All stood quietly as the large figure was revealed. The figure, mostly a face and full torso, stood out from the slab of stone that was flat on two sides where it may have been attached to some temple or church. Flora was glad the vibrant upright figure looked as though it existed on its own and that it came out facing her and the world tall and not lying at anyone’s feet. Flora lost her breath as she saw what she knew from her research was an ancient Green Man with leaves coming out of his mouth and making up his eyebrows. He made her heart beat with his unspeakable beauty. He spoke to her silently. She knew she was spending her last dollar to be with this figure, in truth, she would lay down her life for him. She felt like shouting out, “God save the Green Man!” as if He were a King.
Night brought floodlights to disturb Flora and her neighbors from then on. Flora knew she had to buy heavier curtains.
She looked out next morning to see the statue on her patio looking towards her large glass door. Flora felt a shudder of delight. She went out on the patio crying and approached her beloved figure. Reaching up, she touched the face with its intense features and the leaves in the semilight. She felt the smooth weathered stone. She could tell he was very old. She didn’t care where he had come from. A creature of this kind was bound to have had a deep life of its own and relationships with others who had loved him and been loved. She could almost hear him saying, “Your flowers will come back; everything will turn green again under your fingertips. All will yet be well.”
Flora nodded in understanding. She went to get a pail and hose to wash her precious companion. She lovingly washed the leaves, massaging the veins in the leaves with her fingers to get out the dirt, then washing the precious face and the whole robust figure until she was interrupted.
Cars stopped, filling up the street in front of her lawn, and the passengers began tramping on everyone’s lawn. Flora emptied her pail, said good-bye to the Green Man and fled into her house.
Soon a sign was posted on her patio door and other doors, and lawn signs were planted all over the community. Particular places were cordoned off. Flora’s phone rang all day. The place was chaos.
The Head Manager appeared on her front doorstep along with a thicker and even more officious man. They pounded and yelled to gain admittance. Flora let them in with reluctance. They pushed past her and slammed the door on the reporters and angry residents waiting to get a piece of Flora. She imagined she could hear them setting up the straw ricks on the lawn, just awaiting an opportunity to capture the elusive Flora to set the match.
“Miss Cockerell, you must stop this at once. We have gotten a notarized letter saying the Home, our Home, which you do not own, is a historic site and we can do no excavating or such without permission of the City. The State wants to dig up this whole place. You know what a danger that would be to our residents and to our ability to sell other units as they become unoccupied, which many may become with this mess! You are to blame and will be held financially responsible if we lose revenue or anyone is hurt! You started this. By the way, may I have that permission slip back that the Sub-Manager mistakenly signed? He is gone, so that is why we are collecting his correspondence,” the Head Manager added that last explanation rather too quickly.
Flora dismissed his words without a thought. Her concerns were all about the figure.
“Please leave,” she demanded. “My lawyer will be in touch with all of you if I am harassed!”
“You harassed! We’re all harassed because of you!”
The thick Central Manager merely looked at Flora as he left, a look that scared her way more than the Head Manager’s threats.
Flora needed to feel the Green Man, to get comfort from his face and body. Her life and everyone’s around her was ruined, it seemed. She needed his comfort.
She put on her TV for temporary comfort but there was no picture available. The cable line must have been cut. Flora got her radio and was looking for a good station when she heard the news, “Local authorities made a strange find in the local senior cottages. An ancient statue has been excavated. Teams of archeologists are on their way to do major work in the community. The elderly residents may have to be moved out, some buildings razed. It may be the find of the century, our own Green Man artifact that will change the history of our continent and our ideas about its social evolution.”
Soon after the announcement Flora heard heavy knocks on her door and cries of “We hate you, Flora. Come out. We may be evicted or fall down holes they will dig all over our lawns!”
“Go away,” yelled back Flora. She cowered all day wondering how long she could hold out.
That night she was afraid to go on her patio, the lights were so bright, and a guard was sitting in a car watching.
Suddenly as the lights went out inside and out, Flora thanked the heavens for the storm. She looked for activity by the light of many strikes of lightning, but seeing none, she ventured outside and carefully made her way over to the figure. She felt his head and roundness and smoothness and felt strength. She knew by her touch that she would be helped. She had proved herself, she had passed a test.
The next morning she was listening to the radio when she heard a bulletin saying, “The Governor has contacted local authorities telling them their first concern should be for the elderly in their State.” (A State election was looming and the Governor must need the senior vote.) “Excavations will be called off for now in the senior cottages.” (Apparently, the State budget could not afford the current plan.) “The State University is being given permission to excavate for six weeks each summer. The residents will not be inconvenienced.” (The Governor as usual was trying to appease all parties.)
Flora looked outside in the following days, seeing the cars disappear and the equipment taken away, and the yellow tape removed from the community and the holes filled in.
The Professor knocked on her door.
“May we leave the artifact on your patio until we are able to move it some day?” he asked vaguely. “We will be back next summer but won’t touch your patio nor disturb your plantings except to study the sculpture. I hope no offense was taken.” (Professor Frizzleton was worried about his grants.) Flora knew by now that the figure would stay as long as he wanted.
All became quiet and the night returned to normal. Life was too changed for her to know what normal had been. She could see the figure and could touch him whenever she chose. She felt his power and his mystery. She met his need. Her garden flourished. She had been overwhelmed by disaster and hate but now felt love. Residents came by to see the figure and brought their families to see it proudly. Years passed for Flora to enjoy her life and her love grew. She even looked forward to greeting Professor Frizzleton every summer. Management somehow knew Flora was special and powerful. They also appreciated acquiring an expensive artifact and having something to brag about to tempt new residents. Flora didn’t have to wonder why things had turned out right. She had found her life when she had made her physical connection with the Green Man. She also noticed, without alarm, that when she showered her skin was turning a light but distinct shade of green.
Helen Grochmal started writing fiction in her sixties when she moved to a retirement home. After two mystery novels, she turned her attention to writing short stories in various genres to test her range and talents. She even participated in a podcast and a group mystery (Chasing the Codex). Her publications include Bards and Sages Quarterly, Meat for Tea, Sobotka, Minerva Rising, and Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review.