Joe and Ella stood and gathered up the garbage from their lunch and retraced their steps down the flagstone path through the little forest of rosemary, lavender and yarrow. In the distance I heard their fading footsteps, her heels, his shuffling runners, swallowed by the closing of the alley door that separated the property from the sidewalk.
I creaked with pain as I struggled to my feet. Once I had gathered up my tools and the few as-yet-unplanted bulbs, I staggered to my front porch like an old man twisted by time. My hands walked over each other along the banister of the porch steps, taking over for legs unsteadied from my stint as an eavesdropping quadruped, while my elbows, pinched against my body, held the trowel and the bulbs and the empty plastic soil bag blackened with the memory of its cargo.
A willpower stronger than physical distress sped me through my front door before Joe or Ella had time to get too deep into their house, in the event that one of them, dumb enough to tip a hand while having lunch above the yard of the victim of their plot, smartened up on the walk back home. Then he or she goes to the back of their house, draws the curtain and shoots a paranoid look at the front of my cottage for signs of human presence.
I anticipated this and knew I needed a bare stage to make better my response and strengthen my own strategy for dealing with the Nematodes. So I pulled on the banister and dragged my crippled sticks of legs up the steps and into the cottage with relative dispatch.
Then I was in and the door was shut and the curtains drawn, just as it always looked when I was away. I dropped the garden tools on the floor and stumbled to my little bedroom, just large enough for a queen-sized bed and one small table, with two narrow avenues of hardwood floor between bed and wall.
The floor planks were showing the barest beginnings of a detectable warp from the water that had evaporated from the basement lake, as they began to curl in memory of the shape they had when they were living trees and water flowed through their trunks and branches.
I lay on my bed and stretched till the physical pain of my ordeal had largely subsided. Then I stood on the warped planks in my bare feet and stretched, till my accustomed strength and spring returned to legs and feet.
I lay back down on the bed with an open book beside me but I could not read. My torment took many forms. I was, of course, furious, but also numb and embarrassed, and, worst of all, wracked with fear that I had been trapped.
That damned victim’s role, a role in life I have been forced to play again and again, is a role I never savored, never milked for the sympathy it might evoke in others, a role that I have, at every turn, attempted to reject in the face of circumstances that thrust it upon me. And yet, here it was again.
I wanted to kick myself. Had I revealed my presence to the Nematodes, yes, I might have been accused of eavesdropping, but I also would have snuffed out their plot before it was hatched.
Their embarrassment would have far exceeded my own, had I risen and poked my head through the Chinese lantern blossoms and said, “Gee, and here I thought we had a more candid basis for relating than this. I am rather hurt to think that you would consider such a thing. And, by the way, I do have a photocopy of that note I wrote you about the flooded basement.” (I did not, but how would they know that?)
With this mere act of rising, even on weakened knees, I could have squelched the plot. My fists pounded my thighs but this vented only a small portion of my self-condemnation.
William, you fool, you fool. And you claim you want to avoid the role of the victim — now look at you. Fool!
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