I was a shy little girl, or is it that I lived more in my own world than in other people’s? This world, the adult version of it anyway, seemed rather alien to me, I only felt connected to it, and safe in it, when I was around my older brother. He didn’t always tolerate my following him about however, so sometimes I had to find my own way outside of the home, which was a strange and scary place full of mysteries I could only explore if I went about in it invisibly.
My rare independence was only possible if my brother gave me the slip, or when we went to one of the clubs to which my family belonged. See, in Brazil, little girls were never allowed out alone, so I was told, because of all the possible ‘badnesses’ that could befall them. Outside my home, if my parents were too involved with some activity or other to pay attention to me, if they forgot that my brother was off doing his own whatever and not around to grudgingly watch me, if no one around even knew that I existed, then I might wander off unchecked, like a puppy attracted by some interesting movement, forgetting everything else.
On that day, I was sitting by quietly while my parents chatted with friends; I wasn’t really there. I was in a lush and beautiful garden, my garden, tending to my beloved plants. Which is why, when the two men passed by, I got up without thinking and followed them silently as they talked intently together, unaware of me behind them. I was so quiet they never even looked around to look at me or I’d have realized that I was following strangers and run back where I was meant to be.
I had two particular passions as a child, animals and flowers. As the men passed by me all I heard was one tell the other, “The rose is black.” A black rose! My garden was full of plants; there was even a gardenia tree like the one that grew in my mother’s garden, though mine never stopped blooming like hers did. No roses grew there, however, and neither any black flowers of any kind. It had never occurred to me that such flowers might exist.
“Isn’t it unusual?” one of the men was saying.
“Not only black but scented!” said the other.
They didn’t head into a large building I knew was a greenhouse but walked around it. Now they stopped by a plant. I stopped as well. I could see a bush. It sat in its own flowerbed, a lush, deep green with darker spots near the top. Wanting to dash forward to see better, I still hung back. What if the men shooed me away? I watched as one man gestured and the other bent down over the plant; he lingered there a long time. After what was a tortuous time for me, the two men finally walked away, still too intent in their talk to look back. They might as well have disappeared into a puff of smoke.
I shyly approached the rose bush, came close enough to see the flowers but at a respectful distance. There, two fat buds ready to bloom and one flower already with its fleshy petals open invitingly, reaching proudly for the sun. I moved nearer. They were black all right I could see that, black as my friend Akiko’s hair but without even a tinge of any other colour, except some dark green of the leaves reflected on the outermost petals. I stood in awe, eyes half closed, breathing deeply, ready to receive the flower’s gift. Nothing. I could detect no scent.
I opened my eyes. I was too little to bend over the plant as the man had done and it was still too far away in the bed for me to lean into it. Completely mesmerized by the flowers’ beauty, I stepped forward into the flowerbed.
My screams brought the two men running back from wherever they had got to but I knew nothing of that. See, the flowerbed was an anthill, a red anthill. Brazilian red ants are ferocious; they’re the ones that can strip a carcass in record time. The good news is that the men, who’d not wandered far, reached me in no time, saw immediately what was happening, ripped the sandal off my sockless right foot and slapped the swarming, stinging, biting insects off before they got to my ankle. The bad news is that they put my sandal back on. By the time they carried me screaming and writhing to my parents and someone removed it, there were ants floating INSIDE big burn bubbles all over my foot.
It took all kinds of adults all kinds of time to fix my foot. Once the bubbles had been burst and the burning pain had been soothed, I enjoyed the unusual amount of attention I received until my foot healed.
What amazes me is that the incident didn’t inspire fear of independence in me. On the contrary: What it did do is make me realize I had to pay better attention to my environment, be as aware of the world outside my head as of the one inside it. I had put myself in danger, not the men, not the ants. Thinking about it, I realized I had blindly trespassed in my eagerness to smell the roses. I was sure the rose bush hadn’t minded my presence but that its protectors thought I meant it harm. The thought mortified me. I developed a desire to learn about ants, and consequently about all manner of not-so-cuddly living things, and to keep a respectful distance from their homes.
I do have my actual, beautiful garden now, and it is full of flowers of all kinds, well flowers that can survive Montreal winters anyway, even black irises (ok, they’re a very deep purple, almost black). It’s full of bees, and wasps, ants and worms, centipedes and other buzzing or crawling Canadian things. There are lots of birds too, sparrows, starlings, crows, doves, cardinals, blue jays, tiny woodpeckers, finches, hummingbirds, and other birds that come solo or in flocks to pick at the seeds or drink from and dunk in the water bowls. The only ones who aren’t happy are the roses.
I’m going to give up on roses next summer. I have trouble keeping the foliage healthy and bugs off the blooms. I used to blame overcrowding, then the type of roses I chose that were perhaps too fragile for the weather, then the fact that I can’t (won’t) spray them with anti-fungal or anti-pest medication because I have dogs. I think, remembering the perfect black roses whose scent I will never know and the anthill in which they thrived, that, much as I respect them, I will NOT invite red ants to come live in my garden, I don’t care how good they are with roses.
I will create images of roses instead even black ones. Maybe there, red ants will be welcome.