About the Story (revised and expanded a bit from the original)
Two years ago, Claire lost her husband and Audrey, her father. A job promotion requires a move to a new state and town, and Claire hopes it’s also a fresh start for them both. Audrey, just starting high school, since her dad’s death, had become withdrawn and the move hadn’t helped. Now on a single-earner income, Claire can’t afford a pricey house. So, she picks the cheapest one in an older, affordable neighborhood. The once-lovely house she buys is old and needs work. In its overgrown, neglected, backyard Audrey finds something hidden among the overgrowth of weeds and scrub that changes both their lives. For the better.
Note from Dennis
The real ballerina in the garden
A friend sent me a picture of an orchid shaped like a dancer and asked, “Dennis, what can you write about this?” A part-challenge, partly hopeful request that I met. This short fiction piece is about finding beauty—in an unlikely place—and how that helped a young girl deal with loneliness, to accept and appreciate new surroundings and make new friends. And that what you find often leads to some self-discovery that can have a great effect on your life. So, always look for the beauty—the things we should appreciate—around us. Because they’re there. It may take some work to uncover them, but they are always there.
A few of the reader comments:
“Oh my gosh!!! I am in tears. That was amazing how you just pulled a beautiful and complete story out of a simple picture!” -Janet Mix
“Beautiful…” -Vicki Tyley
“It touched my heart Dennis!” -Rea de Miranda
“What a great read, over morning tea! Thanks!” -Susan Gabriel
“A lovely morning read to start the day feeling good!” -Nina A.
The new girl tightly clutched her phone and didn’t look up at him.
“Audrey…” Mr. Gardner, the teacher, repeated, “It’s your turn.” He motioned to the large display he had wheeled beside his desk and thought about what she had told him last week after class when he had assigned the project.
“I don’t draw, and I can’t make anything… Not like what you said.”
“You don’t have to do those things, Audrey. When I said a visual presentation, I also meant you can take pictures of people or places and then tell us why you find them interesting. Present why they mean something to you.”
“Why do you care; why ask us to do that?”
After teaching kids for fifteen years, he knew she had really asked him, why make ME do this. He pushed his glasses higher on his nose and studied her as she remained in her desk. In part, he had decided on this kind of project to reach the quiet ones in the class. To try and nudge them toward expressing themselves in a way that wasn’t quite voluntary. It being a graded project might help push them to become more comfortable in front of their classmates. Before he could answer, she had stood. He had thought she was going to walk out.
“I don’t know anyone here,” her right arm had swept the room, “and I don’t know this place.” He knew she meant not just the school but also the town. She had only been there a month. He had seen her sitting at lunch, seemingly alone even when surrounded by other kids.
He had nodded and told her, “I know… I can’t draw either, and I understand that you’re new to us, and us to you.” The light tone and smile he gave her hadn’t changed her expression. “Even so… there are things you see or are around that you enjoy or they mean something to you. Just take some pictures of them or maybe a short video and add your description—just a few words—of how you feel about them. That’s all I’m asking.” She hadn’t seemed to buy into that but said nothing more and had not mentioned it over the past week.
The rest of the class had given their presentations and were now shifting restlessly in their seats, a few looking up at the clock on the wall. Gardner rose from behind his desk and came around to sit on its corner nearest the display, moving it another half a foot from him. “It’s your turn.” He knew she heard him.
Audrey’s long wavy hair fell forward as she got up. She didn’t brush it away as she walked to his desk, tapped her phone and then and handed it to him. “It’s ready.” He saw the video window on her phone, connected the micro-HDMI cable to it and the display and then looked at her. She nodded, and he pressed play.
The picture on the screen showed what looked like an overgrown, neglected yard full of weeds and brush. “Last month when we moved here, I found this behind our house.” Her voice pitched lower. “It—the backyard—seemed sad.” The next picture showed improvement, some of the area had been cleared, and remnants of what had once been flowerbeds now showed among the scrub brush. “I worked on it a little each day and on the weekends.” Her voice rose slightly, “Then I found her.” The next picture showed a flower, petals of a burnt-orange red, yellow and white, formed like a dancer in a pirouette. “She was on the other side of a scraggly bush. All alone.”
The teacher watched Audrey who had swept the hair from her face. The shake in her voice belied nervousness, but her look at the class was steady. Pushing his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose, his eyes went back to the video. The next picture was a close up of the flower, arms raised, its chin up. “She was so pretty among what had grown so ugly around her. I read a story once that used the word ‘forlorn.’ I looked up the definition but didn’t really know what it meant until I saw her there. She’d been forgotten.” Audrey paused and studied her classmates. “But she didn’t want to be alone. She wanted to have friends but didn’t know how. She wanted to dance but couldn’t because where she was… wasn’t where she wanted to be. So, she cried there among the weeds that crowded her and the horrible, tangle-thorned bush that blocked the morning sun.”
Gardner half-turned his head from her to glance at the class. Most were now leaning forward and watching Audrey. Jimmy Reynolds was in the back looking out the window, as he always seemed to, but still got straight As. He turned back to the display. The image on it began to move. The camera pulled back to show a now cleared area. There was a sound of the wind that swirled small bits of grass past the lens as it focused on the flower now fully revealed. A gust lifted its petals.
“I call her, The Ballerina.” Audrey sounded almost happy as the camera panned around the orchid swaying in the breeze. The sky grew darker, and a drizzle of rain flitted past the lens, falling to the ground with an occasional plop of a larger drop. The camera zoomed in on the flower. Beads of water now clustered on the petals, bowing the orchid with their weight. A bit of wind tipped the flower, spilling the rain off as a voice, Audrey’s, now accompanied in the video while she stood silently in front of the class.
“I like to read, and I remember something from an author that now makes sense to me. He wrote ‘misty rain falls; not as tears, but a kiss for a garden. It’s there, in its beauty, I find peace.’” The camera panned up to a blue spot in the lightening sky. It captured the instance of the rain’s end. A bit of rainbow color arcing overhead and as the camera walked back, it seemed to end at the orchid. There the motion stopped, freezing on the flower caught in a sliver of sunlight slanting down. “I know how The Ballerina felt in that garden where no one could see her. But now I can, and she’s beautiful.” The screen faded to black as the voiceover ended with, “Now she’s not alone.”
“That was wonderful, Audrey.” Mr. Gardner detached the cord and handed the phone to her. She returned to her seat not noticing his thoughtful expression or the look on some of her classmate’s faces.
* * *
The doorbell startled her. It had not rung since they moved in, nearly a month ago. Claire Stanton rose from the kitchen table and heard—an old, creaky board sound signaling—shifting steps on the porch outside the front door. She peeped to see a tall, lean, man with dark-rimmed glasses. She opened the door. “May I help you?”
“Mr. Gardner, what are you doing here?”
Audrey had come downstairs and was just behind her mother in the doorway.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he smiled at her and then her mother. “But I wanted to ask if I could see your flower—the ballerina—in your garden?”
“It’s funny,” Claire said with an over the shoulder look at Audrey. “My daughter’s had two classmates, who ride the same bus, come by this morning asking the same thing.”
He saw a small flicker on Audrey’s face that settled into a grin. The first he’d seen from her. “Mom, can Mr. Gardner come in and can I show him…?”
“Okay,” Claire looked up at the man as he pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. “Sure.” She stepped back as he stepped in. He moved gracefully but seemed just a bit embarrassed. “Would you like some coffee, Mr. Gardner? We can take it out back with us.”
“Yes, please… that’d be great.” He followed them to the kitchen and moments later—mugs in hand—they were through the back door and into the yard behind the house. About thirty feet from the door stoop’s two-step concrete pad he could see the area from Audrey’s video. Among the green and fresh pastels of new flowers, the ballerina stood out proud in the morning sunlight, two white wide-wooden-slat lawn chairs next to her. He sipped the steaming coffee. “Your daughter’s project—what she showed and said—was impressive. I had to come see for myself.”
Claire looked at Audrey, who was sitting near the orchid, a smile on her face as she watched them drink their coffee. The breeze had lifted her hair back to show how much she and her mother looked alike. Claire set her cup on the arm of the garden chair. “It’s been hard on her, losing her father two years ago, and me moving us to a new town and state.”
Joe Gardner cupped the mug in both hands and sat elbows resting on his knees. “I didn’t know the circumstances. I’m sorry for your loss.”
She expected him to look at her as he spoke but he seemed lost in thought. She didn’t reply and watched him for a moment.
“They say time heals us…” He straightened in the chair and looked over at her, but his eyes were shadowed by someone or something not there. “A little bit each day…” his tone lifted, he looked at the orchid and smiled at Audrey.
A burst of birdsong made them look up at the nearby copse of woods. Claire sighed, “It’s beautiful here. Very different from the city where we’re from.”
He looked around and something—maybe the melody in her voice—made him realize how lovely the morning was and how good the coffee smelled and tasted.
“Mom, can Mr. Gardner come back again to visit her?” Audrey gently touched the ballerina’s petals.
“If he wants to.” Claire brushed a lock of hair back and smiled. He seemed a nice man and anything that got Audrey more engaged in school and with other kids was a good thing.
“Morning coffee?” He asked with a grin. “Next Sunday?”’
She returned his smile. “You bet.”
* * *
Sunday Morning – Twelve Years Later
The tall man, dark hair now thickly-frosted gray at the temples, pushed his glasses up on his nose as he looked down at the young lady next to him. The pool of her wedding gown train was cloth of antique ivory draped over the natural jade of the close-cropped grass. The dew dampened it, but that didn’t matter. In seconds, the music would start, and they would walk to her new beginning. He shook his head. So many years… so fast they go by, he thought as he looked around. It was the start of a beautiful day. The white chairs sat brightly on the emerald green grass. Each had a cluster of orchids at the end of its row full of guests.
“We’re here—all of us—because of a flower,” he murmured to himself and looked at the group of people, his eyes immediately going to the woman sitting proudly in the front row, half-turned in her seat and watching them. She lifted a hand and waved. A mother at the moment in a daughter’s life that holds so much meaning. A woman he would not have met if not for this young lady… and an orchid. He felt tears pool in the corner of his eyes. The music began, and they took their first step. He hugged her arm tightly to him—she was so lovely in the morning sunlight—and he felt her squeeze back. He bent, but only a little since she had grown so tall, and whispered, “I love you, Audrey.”
“I love you, Dad.” She smiled up at him and thanked the ballerina she’d found in this garden that day long ago.
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