by Ada Milenkovic Brown
When Dahlia got out of Junior's truck in front of the three story house, the first
thing she noticed was the face in the leaves. The stone carving jutted out from the
center of a rock terrace, a carving of a man's face with a leaf beard, his eyes
peeking out from more leaves all round them, as if the leaves had wound together
as they grew and that had somehow made a man. For just a minute, she tried to
make it out that it was Garner's face. But of course it wasn't.
A mess of flowers, mostly red and yellow, surrounded the terrace along with a
rock garden, with here and there a weed in amongst the rocks. Garner could have
told her the names of the flowers. But Garner had been gone five years now.
Junior waved and drove off, his riding mower rattling a little on top of the flatbed.
Dahlia straightened her tote bag and looked again at the garden with the face
watching her cross up toward the house. If Garner or even Junior had care of it,
they'd have made sure the yard was better weeded.
A lady with wispy silver hair and a bright yellow sun dress stood nervously beside
the front door. She cleared her throat, so Dahlia looked at her.
"Are you Mrs. Meeks?" the lady said to Dahlia. She talked like she came from up
"Most folks call me Dahlia." Which was true about white folks anyway, at least
the older ones. The younger ones had been calling her Miz Dahlia, just like
everyone else, ever since Civil Rights had made its way east of Wilson. But she
felt it wasn't her place to tell anyone to call her Miz.
"The kitchen's this way." The lady smiled like she was having her picture made.
It often seemed to make Northern ladies a little nervous to have hired Dahlia to
cook. But they didn't really have no choice about that. Dahlia was the best cook
in the county.
The lady said, "I did tell you, didn't I, my tea is at one p.m. tomorrow?"
"That's fine. I'll be baking the cakes today, and then tomorrow morning I'll come
back to fix the sandwiches and the shrimp." Dahlia followed the lady through the
living room, winding past two over-stuffed sofas decorated with vines and big
flowers. The pattern was echoed in a border that ran just below the ceiling. It was
funny about the white folks Dahlia worked for, how a lot of their houses looked
alike. The rooms were too big and the furniture too far apart -- like they never
wanted to sit close and be friendly. No way to even sit outside at all except fenced
in by a swimming pool. Swimming pools didn't set with Dahlia. Drown you if
you weren't careful.
Their shoes tapped along the oak floors into the kitchen. Dahlia opened her tote
bag and pulled out a faded calico apron and put it on.
The lady -- Miz Torrance, Dahlia recollected finally -- pointed out canisters of
flour, sugar, and cocoa. Then the pans and the bowls on shelves. "I think I've got
everything you mentioned on the phone."
Dahlia nodded. "I'll get to work then. Oh, and Miz Torrance? Tomorrow my
son's landscaping over by Chocowinity. So I'll need you to come pick me up. As
I don't drive."
Miz Torrance blushed a little. "Of course. Could you write down directions?"
Dahlia handed her a piece of paper where Junior had done just that.
"The second stoplight -- is that what this says?" Miz Torrance stuck the paper
out to Dahlia.
Dahlia told her she didn't have her reading glasses, but yes, if she was talking
about downtown Grimesland, you turned at the second stoplight, which was
Beauford Street. Dahlia edged toward the refrigerator and hoped Miz Torrence
had no more questions about Junior's note, or at least not enough questions to
figure out that Dahlia couldn't read good. But Miz Torrance just smiled weakly
and backed away. So Dahlia paid her no more mind, but washed her hands and set
the butter out to soften.
When she got to running the mixer, two pairs of feet pattered in behind her.
"What are you making?" This was a tow-headed boy about five.
Dahlia ticked it off on her fingers. "Caramel cake, coconut cake, and dirt cake."
The last was for the children.
"Dirt cake! Yuck!"
On Dahlia's right was the girl, who was taller, but looked just like the boy except
with dark braids. She clicked her tongue at her brother. "It's chocolate."
"That's right. See? Gonna crush these cookies for dirt." Dahlia held up a
package of oreos. "And put in candy worms."
"Gummi worms," the girl corrected her.
"Cool." The brother ran to another room where soon a TV was coughing out
explosions and foolish music.
The sister got on tiptoe and set her head on folded arms on the counter beside the
cake bowl. "Sometimes I think he's developmentally delayed." She pronounced it
Dirt cake brought Dahlia back to thinking about Garner. Dirt was his element.
When they had married and moved into his Great Aunt Euphemia's shotgun house
in Grimesland, there'd been nothing around it but dead grass and dirt. Garner had
dug and planted and weeded. And little by little, year after year, it all turned
Till his heart attacked him.
Now, all that was left of Garner was leaves -- sycamores, hydrangeas, weeping
willows, and wisteria. It was all Garner. It had his stamp. She'd just never
thought to look for his face in it.
She pulled the coconut layers out with silvery mitts, ignoring the heat breath of the
oven, and put in the big flower pot of dirt cake batter.
Time to get started on the frostings. Caramel first, that was the tricky one, you had
to stir it just right when you heated it up or it come out grainy.
Yes, if you could see anyone's face in the leaves, it would surely be Garner's.
That night Dahlia tossed and turned in bed -- on her right side, on her back, on
her stomach. It had been no use trying to sleep on her left side since Garner died.
Because that was the side of the bed he slept on. Because even without turning
that way, she could feel he wasn't there.
She wished she hadn't seen that carving. Now she wanted to see Garner's face in
the leaves. Dahlia threw off the covers and put on her shoes. She slipped out the
back screen door, which creaked as it closed, and she stepped into the grass.
The yard was warm and humid and bathed in moonlight. The sycamores raised
dark branches like fingers into the air; the willows hulked over in mounds over
their trunks. She studied the trees as she wound her way through. No face.
She circled past the hydrangeas, their blue flowers white in the evening, to the
middle of the yard where the wisteria grew on a circle of trellises covered over
with spokes of planking. It had been Garner's present to her on their thirty-fifth
anniversary, and now the vines and grape clusters of flowers tangled down in their
gazebo shape. She went all around it looking in through the leafy vines and cones
of flowers. Then she went in the middle under the spokes to sit finally on the
stone bench Garner had put there and stare at his gravestone.
Maybe the children had the right of it. Maybe it was foolishness to have him here
instead of at the cemetery down by the church. Junior thought so sure, though he
never said, but you could tell by the set of his back as he trimmed around the
gravestone with his edge trimmer. Her daughter Larissa never stopped talking
about it the minute she set foot in Dahlia's house. Mama, you shoulda' this and
Mama, you shoulda' that. There was plenty of shoulda's Dahlia could say about
Larissa's business -- Dahlia's grandbabies playing on that computer till all hours,
getting no sleep -- but Dahlia kept out of other folks' business, and they should
keep out of hers. Plenty of folk had family cemeteries on their land -- you could
see graves every which way on the country highways. And besides, Dahlia would
have felt in the church yard like she was leaving Garner. I'm here, she whispered.
I won't go away this time. She stared around in the semi-darkness. Should have
done this in the daytime. I'm here to touch your face. I'm here to hold your hand.
No one answered her in the dark.
Tuesday was a busy day. She got to the Torrance house late, on account of Miz
Torrance getting lost picking her up. She made ham biscuits in a whirlwind all
morning, which near to wore out her fingers, kneading, patting, and cutting the
biscuits to bake. Then the tea party, putting out cold shrimp, which luckily she
didn't have to peel because Miz Torrance chose not to pay the extra fee, pimento
cheese sandwiches, iced sweet tea, and hot coffee. And of course she put out the
cakes. When the doorbell started ringing, she went back to the kitchen and did her
homework, writing down the names of foods that she found on cans in the pantry.
Occasionally she went in amid the chorus of chattering voices to restock the
The little boy ran past her as she was cleaning up. He had chocolate smeared
across his upper lip and his right cheek.
Tuesday was reading night, so after all that, Junior took her to the church to meet
with Sisi, who wore scarves and those long African dresses.
"Got my homework." Dahlia sat down in the Fellowship Hall at the table across
from Sisi and pulled out the list of words she'd read and written down from the
cans in the pantry. They went over the words, and then like usual, Sisi had Dahlia
talk about something to make into a story. Dahlia talked about Garner. But not
about the face in the leaves. Or how she ached to have him lying beside her.
The story went like this:
Garner was my husband. He was a gardener, the best, which was why
they called him Garner stead of Sidney Meeks. He made wisteria
gazebos. All the mamas had Garner plant them when their girls was
sixteen, so the wisteria would cover it for their weddings. He grew a
special kind. Late bloom, to be all flowers for the June brides.
"Miz Dahlia, does this story say what you want it to?" Sisi said that every time
they did these stories.
And the trouble was, Dahlia had a different story about Garner inside her.
About how they'd fixed his heart in the hospital. And two days after the
operation, lying all weak in the bed, he finally opened his eyes. Touch my face, he
whispered, she could barely hear him. Hold my hand. And she did. But then she
got so tired sitting there, hour by hour, worrying, till the room was swimming, so
she left him alone and went home to sleep. In the middle of the night, they called
her that he'd gone worse, and she called Junior and they went out to the hospital,
but when they got there Garner was dead.
How was she to know they'd fix him up, but he'd die anyway?
She hadn't been touching his face nor his hand when he died. He died without
her, alone, tubes stuck in him and bags of liquid medicine hanging around him and
doctor machines making noises.
But she didn't need to learn to read and write this story on a piece of paper. It was
awful enough to have it running through her head. So she'd said the other story
that Sisi wrote down.
Then Sisi had Dahlia point to words she wanted to learn. Dahlia pointed to
wisteria and gazebos. She already knew how to read Garner's name. Sisi picked
out sixteen and explained that it was the same as 16, but with letters.
Then the lesson ended with Dahlia writing out the fixings for pimento cheese
sandwiches. Sisi had to help her spell out Worcestershire sauce, which felt a
whole lot shorter when Dahlia said it in her mouth than when she wrote it all out
As Junior drove her home, Dahlia asked him if he'd noticed the face with leaves.
He had, lots of folks had them. Dahlia asked what kind of leaves was around the
face. Junior said it depended, sometimes oak, sometimes grapes, sometimes ivy.
"What about wisteria?"
He shrugged. "Don't know if I've ever seen that. Them faces give me the shivers
anyhow. There was one at another house where I helped Daddy cut grass. He
called it Oko. Said that was what he was called in Africa. Said Oko would come
for us if Larissa and I didn't weed the yard."
Dahlia shook her head. She'd never liked Garner scaring the children with tales.
But the face. Why couldn't the leaves be wisteria? It was near to grapes, just with
flowers instead of fruit. Purple flowers even.
That night her hands ached her and fidgeted, like she couldn't stop kneading
biscuits. She found herself turning on her left side, longing for Garner to fill the
empty space beside her. She reached her aching fingers out to where he ought to
be, and they ached more, because the memory of his flesh was in her fingers too,
when she used to reach for him in the dark, doughy and soft and cool.
But no matter which way she reached or turned, there was that brittle space inside.
She'd managed to cover it up before, layers upon layers like smooth pearl locking
away the sharp edges of missing him. Now the layers were cracking and the
emptiness was back.
Soon she dreamed that leaves were growing in tangles across the bed and she saw
Garner's face peeking out between them. His eyes, deep and brown, stared at her.
Smiling eyes. She brushed the vines aside and found his mouth within a beard of
leaves. The leaves were smooth but ridged, and the mouth was soft against her
hand and she leaned her own mouth into the softness, pressing a kiss into him.
But when she felt for his calloused hands, it was all vines and hanging bunches of
flowers, and then it was all tubes and hanging medicine bags, and then it was all
sorriness and sobs, and her sobs woke her.
So she got up again to go sit on the bench in the gazebo. The moon was even
brighter this night. As she examined every patch of wisteria, her eyes swam again
like in the hospital. She rubbed them and looked some more and thought she saw
one eye and part of a cheek above a leaf beard in the vines behind and above
Garner's tombstone. She stood and reached for the place to arrange the wisteria,
pulling it here and there, twisting, sometimes untwisting, until the spaces seemed
to her to look more like Garner's shadow. Then she saw his whole face in the
leaves and his hand reached out to her from the vines. But as she grabbed his
hand, it was nothing but leaves. And she sat down on the grass, and then she lay
down, and Junior found her in the early morning light lying across Garner's grave.
* * *
Larissa called that next day with a lot of stiff words, which matched Dahlia's stiff
muscles as she lay in bed resting. Dahlia just knew Junior had set this up, worried
that Dahlia was fretting over Garner. Sure enough, after all the talk about what
Kareem and Karlos were up to the first week of school, and how many goals
they'd kicked at soccer practice, how their father was making out as their new
principal, on it came. That Dahlia should move in with all of them. How they
could build an apartment on the side of the house.
"I can't leave your daddy."
"He's in heaven, Mama. Heaven's no closer to Grimesland than to Winston-Salem."
And maybe that was true. Except Garner had come to her between the wisteria
and it wouldn't be right to leave him alone, not again. She almost said so: "I got
to stay here. He's in the leaves like that Oko face." But she held the words in
with pursed lips before they got out of her mouth. Larissa and Junior would never
give her a moment's peace if she said a thing like that.
When Junior called later to see how Dahlia was doing, she rode him about not
leaving her be.
"I ain't moving to Winston-Salem."
"You need to move in with Larissa, cause you won't move in with me."
"I ain't moving in with that girl of yours either. She don't like me."
Junior never said anything more when Dahlia brought it up about his girl. Which
just proved the point.
* * *
It was unusual for the very first hurricane of the year to make it all the way to
Grimesland. But the warning for Hurricane Aaron came over the radio, and then
Junior was all around the house, running tape over the windows, filling up
Dahlia's bathtub, and cluttering her tiny kitchen with more bottles of water than
Dahlia could ever drink in three hurricane seasons. He begged her to come just
stay the night with him and that girl. Dahlia would have none of it. She'd been
through Bertha and Fran and Floyd, and all that had ever come of those for her
was a bit of rain and wind, and cooking up everything in the freezer on the gas
stove when the electricity went out too long. It wasn't like all that mess in New
It was already raining when he left. The wind came up and sheets of rain were
pounding on the windows and swaying the trees as Dahlia watched from her
The lights flickered and went out. The clock was stopped at four, but outside all
the clouds made it dark like dusk. Sycamore branches pelted the yard. The
willows bowed, which meant they weren't like to break. But in the middle, the
gazebo trellises ripped apart and wisteria was falling.
Dahlia ran up to the window, though she knew she shouldn't do that in a storm,
and peered around the big X taped across the glass. The piece of trellis behind
Garner's grave hadn't fallen, but it was swaying whenever a gust came up. Dahlia
ran out into the rain and grabbed fistfuls of wood and leaves on each side to hold
up the rest of the trellis.
She buried her face in the leaves and tried to hold up the wall of vines, but it bore
down on her, a wave of blooms and leaves in tangles drowning her in its
heaviness. As the leaves smothered her face, she felt him. Garner was kissing
her. His outstretched arms mirrored hers. His hands, his calloused hands, twined
their fingers in her fingers. She could feel him through her soaked dress as it
ripped against splintered pieces of trellis which the wisteria pushed against her.
A gust of wind tore at her as leaves, vines, and trellis swayed over and Dahlia and
Garner fell with it onto his grave. He lay outlined in wisteria. The wind roared
and the rain came in sheets and Garner was inside her and outside her and holding
her safe, not from the wind and rain, but from the ache. She held him close and
his arms wrapped around her and she pulled up into a ball and wept into the water
and the wind. Wisteria was raining all around them and then a trellis on the other
side cracked and came down, and then blood rained too, in drops from her head
where it flowed away pink in the grass over Garner's grave.
She heard his voice in the wind. I left you alone, I'm sorry.
No, she said, it was me. Forgive me.
As the wind and the rain died down, he faded away from her. But she heard his
voice in the wind once more just before it all faded. And he said, Go on. Go on
Then Junior ran up shouting and pulled her out of the vines and the trellis pieces
and carried her into the house. Soon sirens wailed louder and louder. Faces
appeared, on people with blue uniforms, who strapped belts across her and hoisted
her up and wheeled her head first into a van. The van bumped and heads looked
down at her and hands did fussy doctor things to her arms. She heard Garner's
voice in her head, and she knew to go on.
And she knew now not to look any more for his face in the garden, nor in the
uniforms or the vines of tubing or belts, or the bags of medicine hanging down on
poles like wisteria.