Looking out his window, Mahhi sees a cherry tree that is losing its delicate white and pink blossoms. Breezes knock a flutter of them free. They float reluctantly to the carpet of browning blossoms around the tree.
“They shimmer in the sun. Give their pollen to the bees. So soon they fall. Too soon they wrinkle, to join the dust of the earth.” He pulls at his whitening beard. “As do we.”
The building beyond the tree is another condominium. Painted pale blue with a beige-yellow trim, the skin hides an old structure that was the first one on the block. The ancient cherry tree in its entrance rotunda is the sole reminder of a vast orchard that used to feed thousands with its plump apples, pears, peaches, and, of course, cherries. Where a farmhouse had once encircled an industrious family, time caught up to the children of the children until, finally, the last son decided it was too much trouble to keep bringing in workers from Central America to replace his dwindling family’s labour. The farm became a mall surrounded not by an orchard, but by condos.
Mahhi learned this after he sat one day in the mall, on a bench beside an elderly lady. He had been careful to keep his distance.
He was polite. “Do you mind if I sit here, ma’am? My leg is giving me trouble…”
She had cocked her head to better hear down the length of the bench. “What?”
Directing his face toward her, Mahhi repeated a little louder to get through his mask, “I said, do you mind if I sit here, ma’am? The other benches are occupied and my leg is giving me trouble. It’s an… old wound.”
He remembers looking at her face, her deep wrinkles, and wondering how old she was.
The old lady’s voice had the tremble of age. With an aggravated wave of her cane, “Of course you can, young man! There’s enough room for another three people…” The beginning of her rant trailed off as she looked around for someone who was going to reprimand her. Quietly grumbling, “Damned social distancing. Anti-social distancing! We’re all going crazy. Becoming robots. And I don’t care what they say.” She had looked around again suspiciously.
Mahhi had reluctantly let out a groan while sitting down, causing the old lady to glance at him. She couldn’t help noticing that his mask was slipping off his nose and he had absently pulled it down to his throat. His salt-and-pepper beard then caught her attention. “My grandfather had a beard like yours… So long ago… Better times.” She had nodded off into a daydream.
Mahhi needed to shift a few times to get comfortable. He stretched his left leg out.
The old lady did an uncomfortable double-take as she realized his left leg was a metal rod holding a shoe. She had quickly looked away and fiddled with her cane.
Amused but still annoyed by that century-old attitude, Mahhi had pointedly readjusted the pant sleeve then massaged the end of his flesh leg just below his knee. “Haven’t been able to get a comfortable replacement ‘thesis since, well, since this pandemic started.” He had turned to the old lady to see if she shivered at his handling of what some of the older generation still thought of as a taboo subject. He was pleased to see the old lady gather her inner strength to look down at his leg.
“Does it hurt?” Then she had shivered.
Empathy, he thought. I will reciprocate. “Thank you for asking, ma’am. No, it doesn’t hurt, as it did when it was blown off by a mine. I will admit to that having been painful.” Careful with the gallows humour. It may be too much for her.
The old lady surprised Mahhi. “I’m so sorry, young man. You brought forth so many memories…” Her eyes dulled as she recollected, Gramps lost his right arm in the Boer War, but we never talked about it. Then he caught that horrible Spanish Flu and suffered so much before coughing his lungs out. Which is why I became a nurse…
Brought back to the present by the noise of another passing walker, the old lady had flashed a grin at her bench companion, “My name is Lucy. I was born nearby. My family owned the farm and orchard that covered over two hundred acres of this area… Long ago…” She looked at his well-trimmed beard, then into his eyes. “Very sorry. My name is Lucy. You remind me so much of Gramps. Gramps lost his right arm in the Boer War, but we never talked about it. Then he caught that horrible Spanish Flu and suffered so much before coughing his lungs out. Which is why I became a nurse… Sorry. The memories are too fresh.” She had been playing with her cane as she spoke then finished by placing it between her legs and leaning both hands on the handle. Her pose, the colourful sweater and her cane had reminded Mahhi of the old folks who used to sit in front of the coffee-houses back home, arguing endlessly and passionately about the trivialities of life. He was certain their fate was to have been buried under the rubble of their blown-up buildings.
Mahhi had nodded at Lucy in sympathy. “That’s a solid-looking cane. I was supposed to be sent one, but I expect my request is down the list.”
Lucy had twigged to his slight English accent. “Did you… were you wounded in a war? Your accent… Sorry to be so nosy.”
He had waved his hand. “Not at all, my dear. Attended Oxford.” He had nodded at his leg. “The war was, elsewhere…” He thought it may be time to change the subject. “These days, during the few times we are permitted to socially interact, older conventions must be flung out the window. Wouldn’t you say?”
Nodding, Lucy had been eager to keep talking – to anyone. And this person’s face appears so kind, she thought. “You have a kind face, young man.” Then her old pixie had made an appearance with, “Don’t know if I’d have let you sit down if you’d been clean-shaven.”
They had both shared a grin.
Slowly, from deep behind his face, Mahhi’s thoughts started yet another spiral into the abyss. Who am ‘I’. I don’t stare at my ‘face’ so I don’t really know this thing is outside of my eyes. Does it have a beard? He had run his fingers through the beard. Raising his head to climb back out of the darkness, “So, a year ago, you would have waved your cane at me to ward me off the bench?” Mahhi wondered, Is she quick enough, still, for repartee?
She was. “Yes. But I would have used as an excuse this horrible virus thing.”
Then the Virus Chill had descended over them, with the darkness of giving up. Briefly.
She had managed to shake her cane at the slippery spiral. “Young man, you know my name…?”
“Of course! So sorry. Please call me Mahhi. My manners have become very rusty recently. Mahhi,“ he repeated, as he had seen her struggle with the name. Then he decided to open up a bit. “My leg was a casualty of the recent fighting in my home city, Aleppo. I was, had been, an archaeologist and assistant curator of one of the museums on the Euphrates River. Aleppo is the oldest city in the world and has, did have… so much history to uncover.” With the painful memories, his whole body had shrunk into the bench turning him into such a forlorn-looking man that Lucy had instinctively slid over to hold Mahhi’s hand. The shattering of social distancing protocols could almost be heard echoing off the walls of the mostly shuttered mall stores. A person who had been shuffling her walker toward the bench had stopped, mouth open in astonishment at the scene.
Mahhi smiled at the shuffler, “My mother. She is trying to support me in these difficult times.”
The shuffler had nodded to Lucy, “Good for you, girl. These poor kids need all the help they can get.” She had carried on past them, no longer worried about making a labourious wide arc around the bench.
Lucy had grinned and patted Mahhi’s hand again.
They decided that they might each come to the mall every other day and perhaps find a bench. To talk.
That had been how Mahhi had found out the story about the orchard, Lucy’s family, and the buildings all built up on their former farm. In turn, Mahhi had told Lucy about his people who used to live on the hill overlooking the headwaters of the Euphrates.
One day, in a particularly sombre mood, Mahhi had mused, “My dear, I can see so many similarities between the history of your family farm, and what my city became… with what happened to the ten thousand years of my own people living through their many plagues and invasions and family squabbles in Aleppo. Here, in microcosm, it happens again. It makes me wonder if things ever change for humanity in significant ways. Or, are we merely reliving the same things in an endless series of different universes?”
She had thoughtfully considered his assessment. Lucy had grown found of her sometimes morose new “son”. She had made a point of asking him to help her pronounce his name correctly. “So, Mahhi. You are asking a question that a farmer does not bother with. Why is left to those who mope around the cold quadrangles of stony institutions. A farmer plants, and grows things, and places food on the table. Today and tomorrow. Here in our Farmhouse.” She had waved around at what had become their own private name for the mall, where her family farmhouse had once proudly stood.
By then, over the weeks after their first meeting, several of the regular shufflers had decided to take up positions in front of the bench. Seated on their walkers, they were more or less far enough away from each other. When one of the mall security people had come by to pass on the objections of the administration, who had received a complaint from a fast-walker who had been forced to find a wider route through the area, he was met with a chorus of “Fiddlesticks!” Or words to that effect. Later, the security guard made a point of placing tape lines the floor to mark out 2-metre sections. The next day he had stayed to listen. Then he became a regular member of what they called themselves: The Farm Family.
As the days wore into each other, some of the others added their comments or rants. Mostly, they had listened, as if watching a television show.
The devastating blow came about three months after their first meeting. For Mahhi, it was infinitely worse than having his leg blown off by the mine. Lucy had been found by a neighbour in her little room in the older condo, behind the cherry tree. She passed away next day.
It took a week before Mahhi could make himself visit the Farmhouse. By then, The Farm Family had made the bench into a flower-filled memorial. Tears flowed down into Mahhi’s beard as he stared at the memorial. He had stood unsteadily for he knew not how long until the security guard took his arm to lead him to one of the chairs that had been allowed by mall administration to be left against a shuttered window in front of the bench.
Now, a month later, he contemplated the blossoming cherry tree. “They shimmer in the sun. Give their pollen to the bees. So soon they fall. Too soon they wrinkle, to join the dust of the earth.” He pulls at his whitening beard. “As do we.”
He sees his reflection in the window. “Lucy, you saw my beard. I do not see my beard from my side of the eyes. I remember the mirror image of my face as it was for so many years before the beard. Before the pandemic. Every morning I scraped off the offending hair because that was tradition. But if it wasn’t for my beard, if it wasn’t for the virus, I would not have known your lovely wrinkled old face. Your smile creased the ages. I see you still, before me.”
He focuses back onto the cherry tree. “You blossomed, pink and white, shining in the sun. Until you became wrinkled and dried into the dust that will nourish another tree.” A car drives under the cherry and kicks up the blossoms. He adds sadly, “If you are not paved over, or covered in the detritus of our so-called civilization.”
Mahhi turns his head up to the clouds. “My face, her face, the faces of all those I knew, why do they not learn?”
His heart answers, She will tell me: Say not Why? Lucy will say: Plant, grow, put food on the table…
He shakes his head. And I still must ask, Lucy: Is this enough? Is there no better answer?