Updated: Jan 16, 2020
Every year on the first day of spring I would turn to Evelyn with a smile and say, “Time to play in the dirt!” For the past three years I had been saying it to her framed picture, a black and white of her at twenty-three, sitting under a lilac bush that in recent years was sparse and frail, nestled in the corner of our suburban backyard. She had suggested the garden so that we could have fresh vegetables on summer evenings, but I fell in love with gardening, the feeling of burying my fingers in the soil as I scooped out a hole that would cradle a seedling.
On the second day of spring Alyssa came by to help with the garden. The plants were not quite in the tangled mess they had been last spring when she first appeared on my doorstep, and Alyssa had grown from a constantly-being-distracted-by-everything six to a mature seven, and so we found ourselves sipping lemonade at the picnic table in the backyard by early afternoon. She gripped the glass firmly between her small hands while I surveyed our work: two plots of turned up earth set along the sunniest stretch of fence.
I brushed dirt from my knuckles and asked Alyssa, “What do you think we should plant first? Evelyn always liked cucumbers.”
Alyssa made a face and set her now empty glass beside her. “No cucumbers.”
I laughed at her stubbornness but supposed that since she did help out with the gardening she had a say in what was planted. I would end up giving away at least half the vegetables over the course of the summer, most to her family. Susan called it babysitting when she sent Alyssa over to help with the garden. Alyssa said I needed her expertise in digging dirt. I tended toward the girl’s interpretation.
“I suppose we could try carrots,” I acceded.
“And tomatoes,” I repeated. “Come on, let’s go inside and wash up before you head home.” We left the glasses on the kitchen counter and I pulled out a stool so that Alyssa could reach the sink to wash her hands with more soap than necessary for getting rid of germs but plenty for creating bubble sculptures. I followed suite, sans bubble sculptures, before grabbing the teal rotary telephone that had hung on the wall since Evelyn and I had moved into the house forty years ago.
“Are you sure we’re done?” Alyssa asked.
“Why?” I knew her tactics. She did not want to go home yet, because that meant she had to do her chores. She never thought it a chore to help me. Rather, she seemed to think she was doing me the favor, and though she tended to make mud puddles instead of watering the plants, her carefree company always delighted me.
“I need to call your mother,” I said despite protests. “We finished early and I’m sure she wants you home.” I dialed the number Susan had given me when she, her husband Mark, and Alyssa moved in next door. Mark answered, saying Susan would be running late, he was in the middle of a conference call, and would it be okay if Alyssa could stay awhile longer?
When I told Alyssa that her father had said she could stay, she leapt from her seat and raced off, weaving between furniture and rooms in a victory lap. The laughter turned to a gasp, followed by a crash. I found Alyssa in my study, frozen before an avalanche of books and loose papers.
“I-I’m sorry,” her voice trailed off, anticipating a scolding, but I chuckled and bent to pick up the mess. Realizing she wasn’t in trouble, she picked up some of the pages, going quiet as her eyes took in all the colors and shapes, the gold and silver, the sweeping lines of text around people, lions, angels, and divine beings. With a hint of awe she asked, “What are they?”
“They’re old pictures, called illuminations. Very old. Men painted them while they copied down Bible verses, so that others could understand them,” I explained as best I knew how.
“Why?” Of course she would ask.
“It was a way for them to think about God.” I pointed to a man robed in white, head enshrouded in a yellow-gold halo, his hands spread in welcome. “This is a picture of Jesus,” I explained. “It shows him going up to heaven. The illumination helped people remember what he did.”
Alyssa traced with one finger the line of a robe, a beam of divine light, an interwoven texture of Celtic knots. When she looked up, her eyes shone with excitement. “Can I draw pictures like these?”
Illuminations were my passion. They were what had sustained me in the days and months following Evelyn’s passing, what carried me through the resonating sense of loss and loneliness. They had given me life again, before Susan and Mark had moved in and Alyssa first knocked on my door to introduce herself with a smile full of missing teeth. A child did not - could not - understand what true purpose an illumination held. And yet her eyes held a familiar fascination.
“I suppose….” I looked from the illuminations to her expectant face. “Yes, of course. Let me find some paper. And a book so you can know how to make them.” I laid out paper on the coffee table, along with a garage sale copy of an Illuminated Book of Hours and a tin of crayons.
“You have to draw them too,” she stated, hands on hips. I had copied dozens of illuminations with gold leaf and gesso but had never attempted to draw one that sprung from my imagination using crayon.
“Of course,” I sat beside her with a grin.
We two medieval artists spent the next hour hard at work, and it was not until I heard Susan’s voice on the answering machine that I realized the phone had rung. “I’m sorry for making you babysit her longer, Gerard,” Susan said. “One of the nurses was late for her shift, and Mark already postponed his conference call twice.”
“She was a great help with the garden today,” I replied, watching Alyssa pore through the Book of Hours, her own illuminations burying the coffee table. “We ended up drawing pictures and didn’t even notice the time.”
* * *
Later that evening I leafed through Alyssa’s pictures. She had worked hard to imitate what she had seen, even the most complicated Celtic patterns. The human figures, however, were quite different from the medieval models. A woman rode a bicycle and two boys played with a puppy. An old man sat beside a pond feeding ducks. And one little girl stood with her toes in the dirt of a budding garden, a grin on her face. These were the images Alyssa wanted to remember: not a group of distant mythical beings but people she had met in the neighborhood, in her class at school, at the playground in the park.
I looked from her illustrations to those in the Book of Hours. Beside each gilded saint lay a page filled with Scripture. “If the lay people couldn’t read, at least they could understand the pictures,” Evelyn once explained on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She had been the Art History student, dragging me to every museum and gallery in New York, and introducing me to the art of these medieval monks laboring over transcription and illumination of the Scriptures. Evelyn could stand for hours before a collection of these manuscripts on display, following each line of detail.
“The art of making these was as much a practice of devotion as reading the finished book,” she had said. “The patience required was extraordinary! It was more than a hobby; it was a passion, their life’s work.”
I once laughed at the idea of wasting my life drawing pictures and copying words over and over. Of course, I had also once thought gardening a hobby I would never come to like, let alone look forward to with each winter thaw. Gripped by sudden inspiration, I pulled out calligraphy pens, gold and silver ink, and creamy paper. Alyssa had provided the pictures. I could add the words. I lit the study lamp and worked late into the evening, another medieval monk transcribing the Scriptures.
* * *
I showed Alyssa our own Book of Hours when she came over the next weekend.
“What will you do with it?” she asked.
“Keep adding to it,” I patted the suede cover of the repurposed photo album. “If you’ll draw more pictures?” Alyssa nodded eagerly. We set to work as soon as we finished pulling weeds.
Mark found us in the study, up to our elbows in paper and crayons. “I see you’ve been busy.” He looked over the collection of drawings and calligraphy. “You know, Gerard, there’s a new exhibit at the Met. Medieval Art. I saw pictures online, a lot like yours.”
“A collection of illuminations?” I asked, knees creaking as I rose. “Perhaps I’ll look into it. I haven’t been to the Met in ages, since Evelyn…”
Mark nodded understandingly, leaving me from having to say aloud what I hated to remember. I waved goodbye to Alyssa and returned my attention to our Book of Hours in progress. The Met was inextricably tied to Evelyn, for she’d interned there in college. I had visited on Saturday afternoons when I could take the train into the city.
Still, I asked Susan about the Met exhibit when she next called. “Manuscript Illumination in Northern Europe, open through April,” she answered, looking it up for me. “You haven’t been into the city in ages, Gerard. Do you even remember how to get to the Met?”
“Of course I remember!” I said stiffly.
“I don’t think you should take the train and walk, at your age,” she sighed at my stubbornness. “But Mark and I could drive you two weekends from now, if you want. We could take Alyssa too.”
It would be a pilgrimage, as Evelyn might have said.
* * *
It rained on the day of our pilgrimage. We hurried up the wide museum steps, getting soaked to the bone. I barely heard Susan’s chatter as we stood dripping and drying out, waiting for tickets. I was anxious to find the illuminations. Alyssa clung to our Book of Hours. I led the way to the exhibit, winding through galleries, descending through the ages until we arrived in the medieval period. Alyssa took my hand as we wandered among the displays. She pointed out pictures that caught her eye, and I explained what each scene depicted. One was the Visit of the Magi, another the Last Supper, one more showing a chorus of unnamed saints.
We stopped at the far wall where a leather bound Book of Hours lay open. Alyssa clambered onto a block to see into the case. A shepherd toiled in a drought-ridden field on one page while an angel hovered over a field now teeming with green on the other. An interwoven pattern of vines, flowers, and birds surrounded the gold-tinted figures, along with words from Isaiah: For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of a song.
Alyssa pressed her nose to the glass and took in the illumination in silent awe. “It looks just like one I drew!” She flipped through the album before she came to the page she wanted. It was a picture of an old man and a little girl planting carrots and tomatoes.
“It’s perfect.” I squeezed Alyssa’s hand and smiled, my heart full like a garden overflowing with green.
[This story was submitted to the 2019 Oregon Christian Writers' Cascade Contest and won in the category of Unpublished Short Story!]