Gazebo Dreams

Morningside slide: vaulted arbor in foreground with stairs leading up to gazebo by Mrs. William G. Bush

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e planned to ask her to marry him in the white wedding cake of a gazebo in the back garden, off the terrace. Nobody else was home that day, except the gardener, who didn’t count, and the maids, who counted even less. Frizi was nervous, and kept wiping his sweaty palms on his trousers, leaving dark patches on the gray flannel. He wished he had worn his sailor’s bellbottoms instead, but hadn’t wanted to get grass stains on the crisp white linen.

He toyed with the ring in his pocket, hoping it would fit her finger. It would spoil the romance if he had to jam it over her plump knuckle, or if it were too loose and dropped into the shrubbery. To control his shaking, he tried to make light conversation until the right moment. He wasn’t sure when that would be.

“It was a nice moon last night.”

She nodded, gazing down at an ant struggling to drag a leaf ten times its own size.

“So bright you couldn’t even see the stars.”

“Yes.” The ant was heading towards the edge of the stops. Would it fall off or turn and keep going?

“Delia, I…” Fritzi’s throat was as dry as his hands were wet.  He saw the curve of her breast beneath her yellow silk blouse, and desire stuck to the roof of his mouth.

She heard his hoarse breathing and lowered her head, concentrating fiercely on the ant’s progress. The leaf dipped over the edge of the step, threatening to take the ant with it. She could almost hear it panting with effort.

Fritzi tried again. “From the first time I laid you –“

Her head swung up and she fixed him with a glassy stare.

Oh God, what did I just say? He fumbled, “I mean, laid my eyes on you, I’ve loved you. Delia, will you – will you—marry me?”

The ant teetered, hung suspended in the air still clutching the leaf, and tumbled onto the concrete walkway. She could see it lying there on its back, legs kicking, smothering in something that wasn’t meant to be.

* * * * *

This post is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

Siu Wai Stroshane is a published writer and longtime admirer of the Elephant Man. She has works in several anthologies, both on-line and in print, including bartlebysnopes.com, “The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women’s Anthology, winner of the 1990 National Book Award (Calyx, 1989), and “A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption (North Atlantic Books, 2002).

 Her publications at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Nannerl’s Lament

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ou’ve probably come to ask about Wolfgang. Most people do. For many years, I was afraid he’d been forgotten, but now that Salieri is dying, people have become curious about his earliest rival.

My brother would laugh his braying laugh to be considered anyone’s rival. But during his lifetime, it was no laughing matter. Court intrigue blocked his every attempt to secure a permanent job to support his family. Everyone knows he died poor and thinks it was because he was a careless drunkard. He did love luxury, but he was no fool. One day when he had no money to buy firewood, he and Constanze danced crazily around the room with blue lips and chattering teeth, trying to keep warm. He took on the insane task of writing an opera and a requiem at the same time to earn a few badly-needed guineas.

It’s strange what opposite directions our lives have taken. Look around you at the comfortable room that my late husband the Baron has provided for me. Feel the warmth of the crackling fire. See the light gleam on the polished silver and the fine Dresden porcelain we inherited from his mother. I never want for food or care. Yet who would guess that once I played for the crowned heads of Europe, sitting at fine gilt harpsichords next to my little brother as we wove tapestries of brilliant sound? Who even remembers that Mozart had a sister?

When I was a little girl, Papa used to take me on his lap and teach me music at our little Klavier  in Salzburg. For my fourth birthday, he copied out a notebook of minuets I’d learned to play. “Bravo, Nannerl,” he would exclaim. “My musical one, you will go far.” He and his musician friends would exclaim in delight when I played, my legs dangling beneath my ruffled gown.

Then he was born. On a chilly January night, Mama moaned behind closed doors and brought forth a tiny baby, my brother Johann Chrysostomos Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart. The “Gottlieb” means “God’s love,” and was later changed to its Latin form, “Amadeus.” Wolferl seldom took it seriously though, and later poked fun at his ridiculously long name.

At first my brother was a bit like a puppy with his eyes closed all the time. All he did was puke and cry. I did not find him very interesting, and much preferred our real puppy, Bimperl. My parents seemed to like him well enough, though.

When Wolferl grew old enough to walk, he grew especially annoying. He would interrupt my music lessons and try to plink on the keys. Papa gently chased him away, but one day something strange caught his ear.

“Oho, what have we here? Listen, Nannerl.”

“What?” I pouted. I just wanted my brother to go away.

“He’s playing your minuet!”

And indeed he was. Not perfectly, but his tiny fingers were carefully pecking out the main theme in recognizable form. When he was done, Papa scooped him up, laughing in delight.

“Again, Liebling!” He sat down with Wolferl on his lap, pushing me aside, and the two of them spent the afternoon at the Klavier. From then on, Wolfgang received lessons as well.

Papa’s friends convinced him there was money to made with his Wunderkinder, his wonder children. Papa began to have visions of gold dancing in his head. When Wolferl was six and I was ten, we launched our first tour of Europe. Mama came along that time, and we had a wonderful time seeing the sights as we rode through Linz and down the Danube River to Vienna.

We went to Holland, to London, to Paris, falling sleep to the familiar rumble of carriage wheels. We stayed in dark sinister inns, sharing a flea-ridden mattress and shivering in the cold. Mama tried to make jokes and keep our spirits up, but it wasn’t easy. Papa counted our coins and scribbled in his ledgers. Our money was running out fast.

In Paris we weren’t paid at all, but were allowed the privilege of standing behind Louis XIV and Madame Pompadour at dinner. Despite their dazzling gowns and high elaborate wigs, the people at court smelled horrible. Parisians considered bathing unhealthy in those days, so people wore layers of cologne. We Salzburgers, who bathed every week, had to struggle not to hold our noses in the famous halls of Versailles.

So passed our childhood. Sometimes it was exciting, other times it was exhausting and dull. We would come home to Salzburg and delight in the fresh mountain air and romp with Bimperl. It felt so good to sleep in our own beds! Then Papa would pack us up again.

By the time I was twelve, Papa began to leave me behind. Though I had mixed feelings about touring, I hated being left behind without Wolfgang. I had hoped to learn how to compose as he did, but my early efforts were ignored. All Wolferl had to do was spill a concerto onto the page and everyone hailed him as a genius. Later, of course, we knew he was. But I was never given a chance to prove myself.

I have advice for you young people. Don’t be afraid to go out into the world. Let yourself be heard, whatever your passion is. Don’t pass away unknown as I will. Perhaps someday people will learn that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a sister, and her name was Marianne, whom her family nicknamed “Nannerl.” Remember me.

Irish Balderdash: Nightfall in Ooghinneendonnellduff (Co. Mayo)

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he name of this charming village means “inlet” and it sprang from the fishing industry, if you can call four boats a fleet. The fishermen go out every day at dawn and return at dusk with their catch as they’ve done for centuries. After a pint or two at the town’s only pub, they trudge home to their wives in medieval stone cottages. Now the thatched roofs sport satellite dishes so the Ooghinneendonnellduffians can enjoy five hundred channels of movies, infomercials, football, and of course ‘Paisean Faisean’.

by Siu Wai Stroshane

Decomposing

He stared at the piano keys and saw jagged lines, sharps that altered and bent the pitch of the sounds he heard only in dreams. Putting pen to paper, he struggled to capture the pulse, the EKG of the music, its peaks and valleys of feeling. Mistakes,
corrections, frustration, crossings-out, final completed coda. “It is finished,” he said. When they found him, the line had gone flat forever.

Pennyworth Cottage


ennyworth Cottage was a dark place of mystery to the townspeople of Heaven’s Door. Behind its lavish, carefully-tended gardens, an unseen phantom lurked. Late at night, passersby could see a flickering shadow in a single lighted window, but no one ever set foot outside or came to the village for a cheery ‘hello’ and coffee at the Lovin’ Cup Cafe. In a town where everyone knew everyone else’s secrets and scandals, they found such an elusive figure unsettling, a source of boundless speculation and curiosity.

Yet no one could accuse the cottage’s owner of disturbing the peace with loud parties, barking dogs, or noisy cars. No, Pennyworth Cottage simply existed, though someone clearly cherished the lush flowers on the front grounds. Old Joe Morris, an expert gardener,  once went there to offer his services and expert advice, but was politely turned away by a sad-eyed maid in cap and uniform.

Things might have continued like this indefinitely until one damp, drizzly morning in May that started out like any other day.

Bacon had just begun to sizzle on the grill at the Lovin’ Cup when a figure swathed in a dark cloak and low-brimmed hat pushed slowly  through the door, bringing the locals’ chatter to a sudden halt. In the silence, Maggie Hurley’s fork clattered on her plate, making everyone jump.

Pete Anderson, the grill cook, turned and ambled to the counter, wiping his greasy hands on his already-stained apron. “Can I help you?” he asked cheerfully, as if strange hooded folk wandered in every day.

“Maybe,” answered the other in a depleted voice that seemed drained of emotion.

Pete reached for a damp cloth and mopped the counter in lazy circles. “Oh?” Nothing really rattled him, not even a hold-up attempt a few years back by a wild-eyed drug addict packing a Colt .45. Pete had simply knocked the kid flat with the back side of his meaty fist, plucked the gun from the would-be robber’s limp grasp, and sat on him while Maggie Hurley made a frantic dash to the police station. They had to carry the guy out the door and stuff him in the squad car, barely conscious. Word went out among the lowlifes of the town – you didn’t mess with Big Pete.

But nobody quite knew what to make of this almost otherworldly apparition. A couple of farmers who’d been chewing the fat over stock prices got up stealthily and left without paying. Everyone else remained frozen in their seats. The hooded man? woman? child? stood silently, swaying slightly as if barely able to stand.

“Cat got your tongue?” Pete’s gentle patience was beginning to wear thin.

Finally the stranger said, “He’s off his bleedin’ nut, he is.”

“Huh?” Pete blinked confused  by the British accent and odd choice of words.

The figure  shook its head. “I’ve had enough,” it said, a little louder this time. With trembling hands, the stranger reached up and pulled off the hat. A dark mane of hair tumbled down and revealed a pale, pinched face with large purple bruises on one cheek.

Gasps of horror rippled around the room. Maggie clapped her plump hand to her mouth and retched.

“You’re badly hurt,” said Pete urgently, reaching for the phone on the wall. “Sit down, I’ll have an ambulance here in two minutes tops.”

But the woman shook her head vehemently. “I don’t need a doctor. I just came to — would you hide me?”

“What? Wht?”

“He’s looking for me,” she whispered. “Please, just for today. Then you won’t see me ever again.”

Pete shook his head. “I’ll gladly help you but you really need a doctor for those bruises.”

One of the coffee-swilling locals yelled, “Don’t do it, Pete, you’ll get us all in trouble.”

Pete ignored him and said in a low voice, “Come back here.” He untied his apron and tossed it on the counter. The hooded woman hesitated, and he said impatiently, “Come on now, we haven’t got all day.”

Slowly she edged behind the counter, and everyone could see she was limping badly. Pete shook his head and reached for her arm, supporting her as he led her through the narrow doorway into the kitchen.

A buzz of excitement followed in their wake. People got up, scraping their chairs as if they couldn’t wait to leave.  Soon the coffee shop was deserted  In the small kitchen, Pete opened the pantry door and gestured. “You can stay in here.”

The woman hesitated, then warily hitched herself into the tiny room, amid buckets of coleslaw and rows of canned vegetables and stew. For the first time, she smiled, revealing several missing teeth. It was a death’s head sort of smile and not at all alluring. Pete gulped, muttered, “You’ll be safe here,” and shut the door behind him.

He leaned against the wall and blew out his breath. As he pondered the bizarre situation, things fell into place. The woman must have come from Pennyworth Cottage, where a cruel husband kept her a virtual prisoner. No wonder nobody recognized her.

Pete decided he needed to call the cops. He went back to the phone and furtively dialed zero. Elsi Frumly’s tinny voice came on at once. “How may I direct your call?”

“Elsie, can you fetch me the cops?

“Oh no! Are you being held up?”

Pete thought, If I did, I sure as hell wouln’t be mumblng into the phone.

“No, there’s a lady here needing to hide from some jerk. She’s pretty beat up. Now hurry!” Without waiting for a reply, he hung up and went back to check on the cloaked damsel in distress.

She was gone. Not a trace of her remained in the crowded pantry. Swearing under his breath, Pete searched the kitchen, opening cupboards as if a full-sized human being could slip inside and hide.

Finally a police siren wailed outside, and two cops burst into the room. They saw the empty seats and exhaled, shaking their heads at each other “Waste of time,” the short one said impatiently. He turned to go.

“Wait! I think I hear someone.”  They headed for the back just as Pete emerged, nearly colliding with him.

He shook his head. “Gone.”

“Gone? Who?”

“That lady. Came here looking for a place to hide. She was pretty beat up and dressed like Phantom of the Opera.” He felt as if he were slowly coming out of a disjointed dream. “You’d better look for her or next thing you know, there’ll be a body in a ditch.”

“Christ!” said Cleary, the tall cop. They took a few more details from Pete and hastily left, siren screaming.

Alone in the empty cafe, Pete leaned against the counter and put his head in his hands. You didn’t see battered wives in Heaven’s Door – ironic name it seemed now. Or if there were, they were kept  under lock and key like this woman. It gave him the shivers now to picture what she was trying to get away from.

The next day it was in the papers, and Pete became a celebrity. It was the last thing he wanted. “I didn’t do a thing,” he kept saying. “She ran away before the cops got here.” Every time he recalled the brief episode, his skin crawled. But people continued to hail him as a hero, even as he tried to rid himself of those haunted dark eyes. The cops hadn’t turned up anyone like her, dead or alive.

radually the fuss died down and everyone but Pete forgot about the incident. Three months passed. One day a couple of kids poking around in the woods stumbled over something that looked like a bundle of rags. They poked at it and a bony hand flopped onto the leaves. Screaming in terror, they ran all the way back to town to report their find.

And Pennyworth Cottage stood vacant, its lush gardens turned to withered twigs and shriveled leaves. No one saw anyone moving out. The empty windows stared out at passersby like hollow eyes, rattling in the March wind like bones.

Pete had started having a shot or two of Jack Daniels when he went home at night. Wracked with guilt over not being able to protect the woman from being murdered, he needed more and more whiskey to drown his pain. People began to notice his glassy eyes and failing memory. He got orders mixed up, serving burnt hamburgers to those who wanted them rare, spaghetti to those who had ordered stew. Business waned, and he felt cursed. He was on the verge of closing up the Lovin’ Cup when one day a plain unmarked envelope appeared in his mailbox. Warily he opened it and found himself looking at an undated check for ten thousand dollars, made out to “Coffee Shop owner” in a shaky hand.

The sudden reversal of fortune left him even more stunned and disorented than the episode with the battered woman. His overtaxed conscience made him feel he would be cashing in on someone else’s misery if he kept the money. Insteady, he gave most of it to the local chapter of the Red Cross. He kept fifteen hundred in a jar for emergencies – what kind, he didn’t know.

Pennyworth Cottage was bought by an older couple named Hartwell. They came from the city  looking for a charming, quaint place in which to retire. They knew nothing of the house’s history, and no one was about to tell them. Mrs. Hartwell could be seen toiling in the gardens, and by summer, hints of color and green leaves began to grace the blighted grounds. Mr. Hartwell was an art collecto who enjoyed inviting people in to see his latest Rembrandts and Matisse prints. Gradually, light and laughter filled the once-gloomy halls, and the couple renamed the place “Carpe Diem” – “Seize the Day.” Not being well-versed in Latin, locals tended to call it “Carp House,” to the amusement of the new owners.

Pete could never bring himself to set foot in the rejuvenated place, despite cordial invitations from the Hartwells. He tended to drive two miles out of the way to avoid passing it on the way to work, still seeing those pain-filled eyes that for a fleeting moment had trusted him before fleeing to take their own chances. It was as if Pennyworth Cottage had lodged itself forever in his psyche. He felt possessed by it day and night. Finally he sold the “Lovin’ Cup,”  packed up his scant belongings got in his truck and drove away from Heaven’s Door, never to be seen again.He left behind cartons of empty Jack Daniels bottles and a lingering legacy of willingness to help a desperate stranger when no one else would. People hoped that wherever he had gone, he would find the same.

* * * * *

This story is the first in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

A Stranger in the Garden

Easter Sunday, 1890


n the early light of dawn, Joseph Merrick was already awake
and excited. All through the dark days of Lent and Holy Week, he’d been looking forward to this day. While he loved Christmas most of all, nothing held more promise of eternal joy than Easter.

In his short years on earth, Joseph had already suffered more than most had in an entire lifetime. Jeering derision and cruel mockery had dogged his steps all through childhood. Then there were the years of horror in the workhouse, and traveling in the sideshows, baring his twisted body to gawking audiences as the Elephant Man. That had been tolerable, as he had been able to save a good bit in hopes of buying his own little house someday. Then a cruel manager had taken Joseph to Belgium and stolen every penny he had after their exhibit was closed by the police. Penniless and starving, Joseph had made his way back to London. His only hope was to find Dr. Frederick Treves, whose card he had after being exhibited to a group of anatomists two years before. Treves had rescued Joseph from a raging mob at Liverpool Street Station and had taken him in at the London Hospital.

Sheltered in his comfortable rooms here at the London, visited by royalty and lesser known friends, Joseph had learned to fit into his new life. There were times when he yearned for the old life on the road, especially with Tom Norman, the “Silver King.” Tom had watched over him like a father and treated him as a friend. Joseph missed that independence and wished he didn’t have to live on charity, but times had changed. He needed constant physical care now and he was growing weaker with each passing day.

These days, Joseph was always weary and perpetually in need of rest. Some days he was tempted to go to his eternal rest. It would be so easy. All he would need to do was lie flat on his back. The weight of his head would most likely snap his neck, and God would take him home.

Meanwhile, today was a day of celebration. Joseph turned back the covers and carefully maneuvered his bulky feet onto the floor. He reached for his walking stick and slowly stood up. His huge head lolled to the right and nearly threw him off balance. Lately it had felt so heavy he could barely walk straight. Everything was a struggle nowadays.
Eating, dressing, even walking in the little hospital garden took a supreme effort.

The floorboards felt chilly as he hobbled to the washstand. Splashing cold water on his face made him gasp but thoroughly woke him up. He made little wheezing noises that passed for chuckles. For the thousandth time, he wished he could laugh and smile like other people. It was so hard to show his pleasure because of his constricted jaw and mouth. He had to convey his feelings through his eyes and voice.

Someone knocked at the door, and he called as clearly as he could, “Come in.”

Nurse Ireland came in with a breakfast tray, neat in her cap and apron. She was his favorite nurse, for she took the time to talk to him and didn’t scurry off as soon as possible.

“Good morning, Mr. Merrick. How are you?” Her kindly blue eyes smiled at him as she set down the tray on his table.

“I’m still here, Miss Ireland.”

She laughed. It was his usual response. “Yes, I can see that. I’m glad, to  be sure.”

As Joseph ate his bland hospital porridge, the nurse prepared his  morning bath. When he had first arrived, baths were a terrifying and embarrassing ordeal. He had struggled against being handled so  intimately by women. It was even more humiliating because his flesh gave off a revolting stench. But the nurses’ calm, efficient ministrations had settled him down and the frequent baths themselves had  miraculously rid him of the terrible odor.

Now he looked forward to the warm, soothing water. The nurse helped him climb into the wooden tub and sluiced the water down his back. As she ministered to him with deft hands, he closed his eyes. He never told her that sometimes he would imagine she was his wife, tenderly massaging his tortured skin and whispering words of comfort in his ear…

The bubble always burst when she handed him the brush and said  politely, “I’ll see to your linens now, Mr. Merrick.”

As he finished washing, he could hear the nurse moving about, changing the sheets and piling up the pillows he needed to prop himself up at night. She called, “I expect you’ll want your Sunday best suit.”

“Oh yes!” With a sloshing of water he stood up and laboriously dried off. Piece by piece, Nurse Ireland helped him don the specially tailored suit he was so proud of. Trousers, white starched shirt, vest, coat, tie, and to top it off, a spotless handkerchief in the left breast pocket. She stood back to admire her handiwork.

“You’re quite the gentleman, Mr. Merrick. I wish I could escort you to the services today.”

“Not today?” he asked in dismay.

She shook her head. “No, today I’m going home to spend the holiday with my family.”

“Oh. Well, I daresay I can’t blame you. I would too.”

The nurse looked at him closely. She had learnt his speech almost as well as Mr. Treves, but lately it had grown harder to push the sounds out of his distorted mouth. Joseph tried again.

“I can’t blame you, Nurse.” He tried to keep the disappointment from his voice but she heard it anyway.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Merrick. I promise I’ll take you next Sunday.”

The words rose to the tip of his tongue. I may not be here by then. But  she was his good friend, and he didn’t want to upset her.

Nurse Ireland gave his tie one last tweak. “You’ll hardly miss me, not  with all those other lovely ladies.”

“You’re right.” Joseph went along with the joke for her sake.

The nurse held out her left hand. “Good-day, Mr. Merrick. Have a very Happy Easter!”

They shook hands warmly, and he said, “Thank you, Miss Ireland. Happy Easter to you too.” Then she was gone.

Joseph sat down in his special armchair and opened his Bible. In the pink light from the window, the words glowed like a medieval manuscript.

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning,
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
And suddenly an angel of the Lord…came and rolled away the stone.
Do not be afraid; I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said.

Suffering and death. The glory of the risen Christ. Memories of Eastertide in his mother’s humble church came back to Joseph. Despite the stares as he limped in with the family, he was always blissfully happy there. The peaceful hour seated next to his mother, her familiar scent filling his nostrils. The hymns of celebration rising to the rafters. His favorite one was “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

Lives again our glorious King
Where, O death is now thy sting?
Made like Him, like Him we rise
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies. Alleluia!

A gentle knock at the door brought Joseph back to the present, and he called, “Come in.”

A young man in a crisp tan porter’s uniform stepped into the small room. Joseph didn’t recognize this one, but that wasn’t unusual. They came and went more quickly than the nurses. Some were rogues and drunks, but most were decent.

“Good morning, ah…Mr. Merrick?” He spoke with a faint accent that Joseph couldn’t quite identify. “I’m to take you to Easter services this morning. Will that be all right?”

Joseph nodded. His visitor had gentle brown eyes, not unlike his own, and dark curly hair. With steady hands he helped Joseph don the  voluminous black cloak and mask he must always wear to protect the world from his deformed features.

“Shall we?” The porter’s speech was surprisingly refined for someone of his station. He held out his arm.

They went outside and made their way up the steep steps to the  courtyard known as Bedstead Square. Here the hospital stored its broken beds that needed cleaning and refurbishing. It was not the most direct route to the chapel but it kept Joseph from view of the other patients.

“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” remarked the porter. “The rains let up just in time.”

Joseph felt too shy to speak, so he nodded agreement. They made their way towards the back wing of the hospital, but instead of going indoors, the porter paused.

“It’s early yet,” he said. “Would you like to walk in the garden?”

“In the daytime?” Joseph had never been allowed to go outside by day. Mr. Treves was afraid he would cause a riot similar to the one at Liverpool Street Station all those years ago.

“Why not?” The stranger smiled. “I’m with you today.”

He steered Joseph onto the path towards the back garden. As they passed under the windows of the patients’ wards, Joseph shook with  apprehension, feeling as exposed as a crab on an empty shore. He could almost feel the horrified stares cutting into him like daggers.

They made it to the garden successfully and Joseph allowed himself to savor the dewy air. A faint hint of green along the box hedges made his heart beat faster with joy. Every winter he wondered if he would ever see spring again, and here it was.

Along the path, the first crocuses were poking up, but Joseph’s favorites were the fragrant yellow daffodils. They could be beaten down by a fierce storm but they always clung to life and bravely bloomed.

The porter followed his gaze. “Nice little flowers, daffodils. You can tell spring is really here when they come up.”

“Yes.”

“You know, I’ve heard good things about you, Mr. Merrick.”

“Oh?”

His companion smiled. “Folks say it cheers them up just to be around you.”

Joseph shook his head in disbelief. “How?”

“You’re so well-read and have such interesting things to say. Must be all the books you read.”

With a hint of irony, Joseph answered, “I have all the time in the world.” The porter nodded, though Joseph couldn’t tell whether he had understood or was merely being polite.

Instead, he remarked, “There’s more to it than that. You’re a special person.”

Joseph thought, That’s one way of putting it. He’d had enough of being ‘special’ when it came to people screaming and running away at the sight of him.

As if reading his thoughts, the porter went on. “Oh, I don’t mean because of your— well, your condition. It’s more like a light of goodness in you that touches people—“ he tapped his chest. “Right here.”

Astonished and a bit embarrassed, Joseph stammered, “I try my best.”

“Listen to me rambling on,” the stranger said. “Sometimes I don’t know when to stop.” He chuckled.

They walked slowly in silence. Joseph had never seen the garden by daylight before. The tapestry of colors dazzled his wondering eyes. He felt like a newborn babe seeing the world for the first time.

As they reached the outer border of the garden, Joseph grew nervous. He’d never gone this far before. Weariness crept through his twisted limbs and he wasn’t sure he could walk much further. He turned to the porter.

“Please take me back,” he enunciated carefully.

“Feeling tired, sir? Whatever you wish.”

They turned their steps homeward. The porter offered his arm again and Joseph gratefully accepted it. Usually he treasured his independence, but something about this young man made him want to lean upon his strong arm for support and even comfort. How could it be? Most of the porters treated him with friendly boredom or bored friendliness, not tender concern.

The chapel bells rang out through the crystal-clear air as they drew close to the hospital walls again. By now, the sun was high enough to bath the flowers and grass in golden light. They could have been in Eden.

“Who are you?” Joseph asked his companion. “I’ve never seen you  before.”

“Oh no? I’ve been here all along.” The young man smiled.

As they approached the entrance to the hospital, Joseph’s cane slipped in a patch of mud and he lost his balance. He teetered precariously,  terrified. One fall could snap his neck and be the end of him.

In a flash, the young porter caught him in a strong grip and steadied him. “Easy, Mr. Merrick. I’m here for you.”

Joseph stammered, “Th-thank you.” As he drew deep sobbing breaths, it came to him that he wasn’t ready to die just yet. There was God’s blue sky above him, the promise of the new flowers around him. There were all those loved him, and especially Mr. Treves.

They managed to get to the chapel without further incident, though Joseph’s knees were weak and shaky and his steps were halting. The porter said patiently, “You take as long as you need, sir.”

At the door, Pastor Valentine met them, resplendent in his white robes. “Good morning, Mr. Merrick,” he said heartily. “A very Happy Easter to you!”

“And to you, Reverend.”
The minister said, “I’m delighted you’re here for our early service. But  how did you come here alone?”

Puzzled, Joseph said, “I didn’t.”

His spiritual mentor was usually adept at understanding him, but today his brow furrowed with equal puzzlement. “I see no one with you, Joseph.”

Joseph turned to the young man who had guided him safely to God’s house.

He was gone.

All through the Easter service, as Joseph sat unseen by the others in the vestry, he tried to make sense of what had happened. Someone had brought him to the garden and caught him when he fell. As the beloved hymns of praise filled the chapel and Reverend Valentine’s sonorous voice proclaimed the glory of Christ’s resurrection, Joseph kept hearing
the mysterious young man’s words.

“I’ve been here all along. I’m here for you.”

During the Benediction, Joseph bowed his great head in prayer. A sudden chill ran down his spine. Could it be? Impossible! And yet…he could still feel the stranger’s strong arms steadying him and that calm Presence around him. Tears began to stream down his cheeks.

No matter what befell in the days ahead, he would never be alone.