By John Kearns
An occasional carhorn sent a fading note of complaint down the narrow brick walls of Tulip Street. Potholes made the car chassis grunt. A boy shouted. Some big dog’s deep bark seemed to shake the whole block. In her little house, Danielle had gotten used to hearing and yet ignoring it all. She heard her mother’s familiar step, tread, and creak downstairs. With her eyes closed, she could see her mother rushing around the kitchen. Toastsmell roamed into her room. Morning. It had long been morning. Daddy was going away. Back to the Navy. Her nightmare! Maybe this time he would not come back. No, she couldn’t think that. It would never, ever come true. He promised.
Mom clanged utensils against pans and bowls and plates, whisking the eggs, putting a plate of stacked toast upon the table. She had called Danielle more than once, without success. Danielle was not sleeping or sleepy, but she did not want to move. She wanted to stay put, like a plant rooted in hard earth, and forget about her bad dream.
A man’s voice in the kitchen, still strange though Daddy had been back from the Navy for a couple of weeks. She wondered what noises he hears, yet ignores when he is in his bunk at sea and if it is hard to learn to ignore them. The sea noises must be strange: the splashing against the steel walls, the hum of the engine, the cawing seagulls, the scratchy-snoring sailors. It must be weird to sleep below deck, knowing there is the ocean right outside and fish swimming alongside your room. She wondered if the fish could hear the snoring and if they ignored it.
— Danielle! I must have called you a half a dozen times now!
At breakfast, she wanted to ask him about sleeping on the boat. She kept thinking about the splashing, the humming, the cawing, and the snoring, and, about the fish swimming alongside his bedroom. But, she didn’t dare ask. He seemed grouchy. He devoured his eggs and bacon with loudsmacking lips accompanied by snorting nostrils. He took big crunching bites of his toast, which seemed to follow a regular rhythm with his swallowing and his sips of orange juice. He sat up straight in his chair. He had sat that way when he had first gotten leave. He usually kept up the posture for a few days and then seemed to relax. Then he would seem happy to be home. It was as if everything were brand new to him. Or, maybe everything just seemed new and, at the same time, vaguely remembered, like a scene from another life or from a dream he had almost forgotten. Does it take him time to get used to the sea noises after he has been on land and to the land noises after he has been at sea? She wouldn’t dare ask that either.
Now he had reached the restless stage, however, and his posture started to look like a sailor’s again.
— I feel like a fish out of water around here! he had said last night.
Everything was suddenly kept in the wrong place. Everyone slept too much. Mom did not follow his instructions. And, life could not move fast enough. It was clear that he longed for the new life shipping out would bring — new but vaguely remembered, like a scene from another life or from a dream he had almost forgotten. But not that dream. Not her dream! Did he get tired of that life also after a while? Danielle thought so. But now she could see that he burned to be back eating breakfast among the men, with the floor under his feet rolling with the ocean waves.
— Did you sleep well, Danielle? he asked out of the blue.
— Pretty good.
His cold blue eyes squinted at her as he wiped his lips with a paper napkin.
— I thought I heard you yell somethin’, he said. Did you have a nightmare?
The dream! The shock shook her to her bones. How did he know? What should she tell him? She felt so afraid for her daddy. Should she tell him about the dream? But then she was afraid of how he would react. He would think it was just silliness, probably. But, she had yelled something! What had she said? Did he already know what she had dreamed about? Had she given away some secret? She was dying to know.
— What did I say?
— I couldn’t make out the words but you yelled out like you were in trouble or afraid of somethin’.
What could she say? She couldn’t think up any story better than the truth.
— I had a dream about you, Daddy.
— Ha ha! he chuckled. About me, huh?
A storm! A storm! Her daddy on deck. The ship pitching wildly. Up and down. Left and right. Rough waves whitefoamed washing over the side, rising to his knees and ebbing away. Daddy’s feet wet and cold. The wind screaming so loud it drowns his curses. He’s moving away, moving away! Away! Mountains of seawater jump and plunge. The ship shrinks smaller and smaller! Lost! He’ll be lost and gone! Daddy lost and gone!
— Yes, it was very scary. You were on a ship and there was a terrible storm. It was raining cats and dogs and the water was coming up onto the boat and making your feet wet and the wind was blowing and you were getting real mad.
It was strange that she always dreamed of a storm attacking him: never an enemy or a pirate ship or something. She guessed if any humans ever attacked her daddy in a dream, she could just imagine him shooting them and that would be the end of that.
— Ha ha! he laughed again. You had a dream about your old sailor daddy in a storm! Poor Danielle!
How could he laugh, she wondered. He didn’t seem to understand the dream.
— But it was scary, Daddy. I didn’t like the dream at all.
— Ah, it’s nuthin’ for a sailor to get his feet wet and curse at the wind.
He sniggered and snorted.
— But you were in trouble, Daddy.
— Danielle, you know I love bein’ here with you and your mom. But … But, there’s another part of me that thinks my feet have been dry for too long now. Yih know what I mean?
He shuffled his feet underneath the table as if to illustrate his point.
— I have to go back to fightin’ storms and cursin’ at the wind. It’s my way of life.
— I wish it wasn’t. Danielle stomped her right foot. She stared into her plate of eggs for a moment, pouting. It’s too scary with all the storms and big waves.
— Danielle! Her mother shouted. That’s your father you’re talking to!
— Also, I promised to serve in the Navy, her father added. I have to keep my promises — right? There’s only another year to go. Plus, it’s my duty.
— I always hated that word!
Her father chuckled and shuffled his legs about restlessly under the kitchen table. She couldn’t believe it! All he could think about was getting back to sea, even in bad weather, and he didn’t care about what the dream might mean.
As she left the house, she knew her mother was right. He had to pack his things and get ready for shipping out. It was his way. He had explained it many times.
— I don’t know, he would say. I’m restless. I just can’t stay on land all the time. Just be patient and I’ll be back. I will always come back, Danielle.
The sea and the land, the sea and the land. Why did they have to be so separate? Why did one have to be different from the other? It was that way in the Bible. God parted the land from the sea. She wished He hadn’t. But she shouldn’t say that. Why couldn’t Daddy love the land? Maybe there was some place where God hadn’t parted the sea from the land, like an undersea island, like Atlantis. She wished she could go there. Maybe that could be her family’s happy home. Or maybe she could wait there for him, at least, and each time he shipped out, she could watch the hull pass over her and see it go by again when he returned. Then she would know that it was almost time to see him. She could have a garden there and Daddy would love it because it would be land in the sea. But, maybe she could help him love the land more than the sea.
Since the springtime, Danielle’s neighbor, Lena, had been letting her help in her patch of the community garden. She took care of the flowers and planted seeds. She learned how often to water this plant and how often to water that one. She memorized the names: the gladiolas and the tulips and the chrysanthemums and the irises and the orchids and the daisies. Lena had learned them from library books: city people didn’t know much about these things, she said. Some names were hard to pronounce and her mouth and tongue were clumsy like a sailor without his sea legs. But the petals were so pretty and the feel of them in her finger tips made her feel so happy, she didn’t care about the hard words. And, when the flowers were healthy looking and they were drinking up the water she had given them, she could have sworn they smiled at her. She remembered when she was little how she used to wonder how the plants could drink if they didn’t have mouths. Then she learned about roots and saw how God gives them everything they need, even sending people like her and Lena to take care of them when they needed a little extra help.
Danielle had also helped harvest some of the vegetables, picking the tomatoes and some ears of corn. The way the bean stalks climbed up the poles was like magic. They twisted like snakes — only nice snakes with no scary tongues or teeth! And the potatoes were so cute in their hiding spots underneath the broad green leaves and their little hills of dirt. Then there were the herbs which were like peppermint candy only not in a package but right there at your fingertips, little natural treats from God —and all you had to do was take care of them. And taking care of them made her so happy! She wished she were a farmer girl picking fruit and vegetables on a farm — like out in Lancaster where everything was spread out so wide and it seemed like you could look for miles over the fields to the horizon, as if the fields were an ocean of green, like down the shore, like Daddy’s sea. But instead, she was on a small patch of dirt at Tulip and Cumberland surrounded by rowhouses on a hazy afternoon in noisy Port Richmond.
When he had first come home for leave, she had been so excited to tell her father about the plants she had learned about and taken care of so well that he had said:
— You better be careful or you’ll turn into a plant!
But it was hard to stop talking about the garden. She wanted to share this newly discovered world with him. Her mother was pleased about it also, though she was critical of the dirt she dragged home on her clothes. Mom had even said that some of the tomatoes Lena had given her last week were better than Jersey tomatoes!
Lena noticed the effect the garden had had on Danielle.
— Danielle, she said. You love the garden — don’t you?
— Yeah, I do.
— I can tell! You’ve been doin’ a real good job with the flowers and all of the plants.
— Thanks, Lena.
— Well, I’ll tell you what, Lena said with a broad smile. Next planting season, just before spring really starts, I’m going to save you a little patch of dirt right here.
She drew a little square in the air to trace the area of land which would be reserved.
— And I’m going to save it just for you. You can plant some of my seeds there and take care of it and it will be your very own section of the garden.
Her very own section of the garden! Could it be true?! She would take care of it as if it were her baby!
— And, Lena, can I still work on the rest of the garden, too?
Lena patted her protégé on the head.
— You can do as much as you like, sweetheart, as often as your mom let’s you come.
— Lena, thank you so much!
She was so happy with this news that she barely noticed the thunder in the distance as she walked home. While they were having dinner, strong winds began to blow. Then, finally, the rain came. The drops seemed to attack the hot street. The people covered their heads and ran for home or whatever cover they could find. On Action News, they called it a Noreaster. Was it something to do with the Great Northeast? She didn’t know. Anyway, it was something serious. Maybe it would keep her daddy home! God does give us everything we need!
Her bedroom window was left open just a little for some air and she could feel droplets of water blown through the screen. They kissed her feet with lips cold as death. The curtains of her window billowed like the sails of a ship from the olden days. She wondered if her daddy would like to sail in one of them. The stuffed animals and dolls in her room just stared in their usual, empty way, not smart enough to worry about anyone.
He can’t go!
Whenever she closed her eyes: a storm! A storm! Her daddy on deck. The ship pitching wildly. Up and down. Left and right. Rough waves whitefoamed washing over the side, rising to his knees and ebbing away. Daddy’s feet wet and cold. The wind screaming so loud it drowns his curses. He’s moving away, moving away! Away! Mountains of seawater jump and plunge. The ship shrinks smaller and smaller! Lost! He’ll be lost and gone! Daddy lost and gone!
He can’t go!
The Noreaster was a being, an angry giant cloud with wicked blowing lips, blasting, screaming, and roaring. It bombarded the rooftops with hard, wetcold pellets, like countless boys throwing rocks.
Eventually, Danielle fell asleep, though she woke up shivering a couple of times. One time she thought she was on a ship at sea and that her room was tossing and turning. Another time, she had been dreaming that she was a woman about to get married on the grand island of Atlantis and before her wedding the stormy waters washed over the island and took her world away from her. Everything was water and destruction and death.
But, the sun was shining when she woke up and all she could hear were the usual street sounds.
When she came down for breakfast, she saw her father’s bags in the living room. And he was in his uniform.
— But you can’t leave, daddy! she shouted, tears starting to blur her vision of him. What about my dream? What about the storm? It was a Noreaster!
— Oh, sailors are used to storms, sweetie, he chuckled.
— Why are you always laughing? Danielle screamed.
She stomped toward the front door. As she reached it, she turned and shrieked:
— It’s not funny!
She was racing down the street before she knew what she was doing. Her father walked after her, letting her run ahead. She needed to get it out of her system. Besides, he knew exactly where she was going.
When Danielle reached the garden, she stopped dead, panting and wheezing. The vegetables were all right but the flowers … ! The Noreaster had chewed the flower garden to pieces. What had been a patch of earth smiling with color was now a swamp, a wasteland of mud. The flowers were all knocked down and drowned. They weren’t even rooted in the earth anymore. The monster had ravaged her precious plantbabies. Tears came to her eyes before she could even catch her breath. She sat right down on the ground, not even caring about the mud.
An old black lady came over to her. She had seen the lady at the garden before but had never met her.
— What is it, sweetheart? The lady asked. Oh, honey, all your pretty flowers washed away!
She patted her on the hand but Danielle did not respond. Even though it was all muddy, Danielle covered her eyes with her other hand, and wept. Sadness rained down on her harder than the Noreaster had on Lena’s little garden patch. Her tears dropped into the soft earth.
The lady crouched down next to her without getting dirty and shook her head at the little girl’s lost garden of flowers.
— Nothin’ I can say, sweetheart, the lady said. Except it’s God’s will. He give and He take away. The storm gave water to lots of plants that needed it but it destroyed this little patch of flowers. Nature do sloppy work sometime.
She laughed, hoping to get a smile out of the girl who was now sobbing quietly.
— Come on, honey, the lady said. It ain’t so bad. You can grow a lot more pretty flowers. Who knows? Maybe one left even now.
Her eyes carefully explored the wreckage of the garden. Beyond a tiny hill of mud, she saw a dirtied splash of yellow and a healthy green stem rooted in the earth. The flower was bent over with its petals in the mud but it was still alive and healthy.
— Look! Look! she exclaimed. A iris! A pretty yellow iris — still alive!
It was her father’s voice from far away.
He was walking across the street to her garden.
She looked back to the garden and saw where the lady was pointing. There was indeed a beautiful yellow iris, bent over and muddied, but still alive!
— Oh, thank you! Danielle cried.
Her father came up behind her. Danielle bent and plucked the flower out of the earth. Then, smiling through her tears, she handed to her daddy the muddied yellow iris, the survivor of storms.
This is reprinted from the collection "Dreams and Dull Realities" by John Kearns.
John Kearns is treasurer and salon producer for Irish American Writers & Artists, Inc. He the author of the short-story collection, “Dreams and Dull Realities,” and the novel, The World. His novel-in-progress, “Worlds,” was a finalist in the 2002 New Century Writers’ Awards. John has had five full-length and five one-act plays produced in Manhattan, His fiction has appeared in the Medulla Review and Danse Macabre. His poems have appeared in in the North American Review, the Grey Sparrow Journal, Feile-Festa, and the ASBDQ experimental text journal. He has a Master’s Degree in Irish Literature from the Catholic University of America.