hen the darkness cooled things off too much in the house, L. went out in the garden to put the heat back in her veins. There was nothing cold-blooded about her, but she needed the sun to keep her heart beating. It wasn’t just for mood-brightening and vitamin D purposes—the saving star was the reason she continued to walk on this earth.
All her life, she could feel the human temperature waning. When things became stagnant, L. had to bring the energy back. The only way was the sun. She knew this because of the shadowy house, where even the windows conspired against the light. She had to seek it out, invite it back through her skin. Somehow the gamma rays dimmed as they passed through the panes, lost their vitality before they could warm the floor tiles and revive the suffering houseplants. L. was living in a reverse greenhouse with a family that squinted at the first sign of radiation.
The house had once had a gardener, a small man partial to pruning and cutting, keeping in check. He preferred hedges and stiff stems, plants he could easily keep in straight, clean lines. But the darkness of the house had eventually driven him off. A man of soil cannot manipulate light’s wonders with that abyss staring at him, he said as he passed by L. one day with his shears tucked inside a heavy bag. So the gardener was gone, but his hedges and rosebushes took over his realm. They negotiated the spaces they had been sharply clipped out of before, and discovered the vining power previously discouraged. But L. had found the horizontal planes of the hedges to be sturdy support for her contemplations of the sun. As though reluctant to give up its legacy too quickly, one row of hedges was slow to lose its strictly sculptured shape. It was where L. had found her life again.
L.’s mother and father must have had some kind of pilot light inside of them, keeping their organs warm, because shadows seemed to give them more direction than the sun’s rays. Sometimes L. imagined she had had been born with a twin whose short life had been concealed from her. Had that being taken all the power to extract substance from darkness? These things were simply not discussed. There was certainly talk—about caves, the Marianas Trench, certain Mozart arias, outer space—but it did not extend to the brighter parts of the universe. L’s grandmother lived with them too, always ruminating in her chair on some seed or other, like a weathered crow. They were less a family than a collection of refugees, gathered in mutual avoidance. They talked, ate, listened to music, and even read together, straining to see the words, but L. was the only one who had a sense of a lost homeland, a heat-seeking tendency.
She was always hoarding candles and lightbulbs, hard as it was from the paltry supply kept on hand. In her room, she kept vigil with a carefully rationed lump of wax and a sad lamp a neighbor must have dropped in their yard. She also had a lantern left behind from the gardener. Even at night, you must keep the memory of illumination, he had said. He liked to walk about his handiwork after sundown, assuring the green of its eventual return to color. L. had not fully understood the concept of the sun, a massive life-giving fireball, until her seventh birthday. Before, she had only glimpsed it between wind rustles of the curtains, or as the gardener came in to get his pay. But the day she turned seven, her mother had led her to the garden door. Go out, she said, and see what’s there. She did not move, keeping her back to the door and tensing as if bracing for a blow. Feeling an unfamiliar but keen warmth from beneath the door, L. turned the rusting knob and stepped into the manicured garden. She inhaled, feeling like she had just arrived somewhere far away but inexplicably anticipated.
L. walked along the perfect rows, marveling at colors she had never seen, and savoring the intensity of light on her face. It was almost painfully hot, but as the sun got higher, she felt stronger. When she reached the hedgerows, tyrannically trimmed, so well-planed they looked like verdant marble, she couldn’t resist the urge to lie down on a section. She wanted more of the sun—it was as though she was breathing through her skin, exhaling the years of darkness and taking in a brighter form of oxygen. She aligned her body on the perfectly horizontal hedge and aimed her chin toward the sun. The bush, though masterfully sculpted, was still a shape made of tiny, spiky branches, but despite this, the plant seemed to accept her form. L. lay still as the rays energized her and were finally allowed to reach into her heart and pump revitalized blood through parched, cooled veins.
Since that birthday, L. had rubbed the rust back off the doorknob. She went out more and more frequently for her sun sessions, leaving the cloaked house to offer herself up to the sun. If the three other dark-encased bodies noticed more of a void, they kept silent. L. realized that she might not have lasted long after age seven if her mother had not inexplicably given her a portal. She thought at first she was photosynthetic, but gradually surmised that was not her chemical situation. Her body was camouflaging itself to its thermal surroundings. But only light gave her the power to keep blood flowing through her body, the energy to keep moving. Possessing neither tail nor scales, her body had nonetheless revealed its reptilian rhythms.
As the coordinates of her life began to shift, so did the garden. The gardener abandoned his plants to a need for greater illumination, and his former kingdom began to bud in glorious revenge. The roses expanded their reach and inaugurated new colors in every blossom. Trees bore fruit L. had never seen before. Hummingbirds dipped in and out of shockingly large and fragrant flowers. Green reigned, but L.’s hedge kept adhering to her shape. The vines spread all around her as she took in the necessary rays, but her perch remained constant. While she cooked, she kept her nearly closed eyes on the mountain looming over the south wall, perhaps a few hours’ walk in the direction of the sea. She began to use it as her sundial.
On a day of intense sunshine, L. was finding it hard to get her fill. Usually the sun did not fail her. She had made sure to soak in the peak hours of light, and pivoted like a sunflower according to the brightest part of the sky. But her blood still felt like sludge in her veins, her skin still pricked with goosebumps. She had to harness that energy, but it wasn’t coming though as before. She rolled herself off the hedge and looked for a small glint through the thriving leaves of the jungle garden. If vines hadn’t enveloped and built a wall of their own over it, the gate could lead her out. L. hadn’t thought to leave her sun sanctuary, but her heat-seeking heart flared for sustenance. She felt through the climbing mandevilla and moonflower until her hands found a latch woven over with the thin but sinewy stems. Carefully, so as not to expend too much energy, she began to pry off the robust vegetation.
The reawakened garden had helped her find the sky, and the light it gave, but she needed higher ground. She had to get closer to the source. What little color she had been able to glean that day was already retreating form her cheeks. Tearing more stems and flowers from the gate, L. knew she would have to go to the mountain. Finally, she prised the vines from the gate and pushed the neglected hinge open. Southto the sea, north to the sun. Climbing the mountain would bring her that much closer to her star of worship. Losing heat, L. stopped to press her body against the bigger rocks that she passed. She wondered if she would make it by nightfall. At least there was a funicular to bring her nearer the summit once she reached the mountain. From curtained abyss to greening garden to a mountaintop, L. began to think she might sprout wings next. She slipped into a narrow space between two tall rocks to rest.
* * * * *
This week, we’re featuring a new collaboration between photographer Naama Sarid, whose work we’ve featured in the past. Naama has been kind enough to share her work with some of our other contributors, and they have been writing and creating based on her wonderful photography. This piece is inspired by Exposure № 072: Mariposa. See Naama Sarid’s other Snake-Oil Cure contrubutions here.
Claire Brindley lives in Washington, DC, where she walks herself silly in search of the unknown. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.