First published by Oddville Press, Volume 2, Issue 3, October, 2014
Shakespir Edition May 2016
Copyright 2016 by Lea Tassie
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A PROPOSAL OF MARRIAGE
We walked up the driveway beneath the dappled shade of golden locust trees, listening to the drowsy murmuring of bees and cicadas. My twin’s high heels wobbled over the gravel as she struggled to keep her balance. Under my boots, the stones ground against one another, squeaking in protest.
“I’ve made a decision, Cristobal,” Marietta said. “I shall marry Aubrey and embrace a tranquil life. He seems gentle and I love his garden. It reminds me of the old fairy tales our parents used to read to us when we were small.”
“I thought you came here only to look at my new country. I’ve never known you to take an interest in tranquility.”
“A girl can change her mind. I like Canada. I like the life Aubrey has here, the stillness he has around him.” Her gaze followed a green-gold leaf as it drifted down to the driveway. “But I will make him sweep up these messy leaves as they fall.”
It’s true that Aubrey’s place feels like a haven. His house sits on a small rectangle of land at the end of a long, narrow driveway, surrounded by flower gardens and guarded on all sides by tall trees and shrubs. One cannot see the neighboring houses nor hear the noise of traffic on the main road. The lush gardens make even me imagine I might catch a glimpse of elves weaving garlands of flowers under the giant hosta leaves. Except, of course, I do not believe in elves.
“Aubrey shows no signs of wanting a wife.”
“How would you know what he wants?” Marietta demanded. “You never look at anything but the cards.”
My sister does not like facts which are at odds with her desires. I met Aubrey soon after I immigrated and we understand each other well enough. I do not know his past history, only that he carries some tragic burden and that his aura of peace was not easily won. “I don’t need to look at him. I know Aubrey well now.”
I know my sister, too. I spent too much of my life in our tormented country trying to help her reach impossible goals and paying more than I could afford in bribes to get her out of trouble. Finally, I fled across the equator and half a dozen borders, hoping to find serenity in this northern rain forest.
Marietta gave me a disbelieving smile. “Suppose I commit an act of patriotism? If I assassinate the president, I’ll need a refuge. Aubrey is a kind man; he would feel sorry for me. Besides, I am still attractive. Both of us would benefit.”
I suppressed a shudder. “He may not believe in assassination nor that it would be a benefit.”
“Don’t quibble, Cristobal,” she said. “I will convince him it is the only thing to do. Besides, I dream about it every night.”
“Does the dream tell you how it will happen? The man who commits such an act will most certainly have fifteen minutes of fame before he dies.”
“A woman would have more than fifteen minutes,” Marietta said. “And she will not die if no one knows her real name.” She tossed her head. “I am truly tempted to do it.”
I heard a rustle behind me and glanced over my shoulder, a habit I have not managed to shake, in spite of living in safety for the past two years. But it was only a foraging squirrel and the locust trees receded harmoniously into a gold-green tunnel behind us.
When we emerged into the front garden, Aubrey was sitting at the wrought iron table. His friend, Prunella, came out of the house with two decks of cards, a score pad, pencils and a bottle of dandelion wine shining pale gold like the essence of sunlight.
Marietta sat down opposite Aubrey. “Are we going to be partners?”
“Suits me,” he said, shoving his cowboy hat to the back of his head. “Saves cutting the cards.”
“I wasn’t thinking about bridge. I mean real partners. Like getting married.”
The sun was shining in my eyes, but I could swear Aubrey went pale.
“You’d have to wash my socks,” he said finally.
At the corner of the house, beneath the wisteria’s drooping clusters of pale lilac blooms, bamboo wind chimes clacked with a faintly hollow sound and a small fountain, almost hidden by the giant hostas, whispered liquid music. Ranks of red impatiens and blue bachelor buttons nodded their heads.
Marietta said sharply, “I don’t do socks.”
A slight movement among the hostas caught my attention. A black jaguar glared from the dim shade provided by a giant leaf. The cat emerged from the lush growth, padded through the impatiens and lay down on the gravel bordering the flowers. Its eyes were the pale yellow of the dandelion wine and the sleek fur glistened in the sunlight.
Marietta glanced at the cat and spread a deck of cards across the table. We cut for deal and Prunella, my partner by default, won with the highest card. She dealt, glanced at her cards, shrugged and passed.
“I’ll be forced to ask for refugee status if you won’t marry me,” Marietta said to Aubrey, her tone more conciliatory. “I intend to assassinate the president of my country.”
“Well now, don’t be too hasty,” Aubrey said, removing his hat to smooth back his thinning hair. “We’ll work something out. Can you make beet pickles?”
“I never learned how to cook,” Marietta said, with a demure smile. “I lived with a poet and we dined on iambic pentameter and moonlight.”
She was going about this entirely the wrong way, as usual. She could easily have lied about the pickles. I glared at her until she said, “Oh, is it my turn to bid? One no trump.”
I looked at my poor assortment of cards and passed.
Aubrey stared at the jaguar, then his cards, and chewed his bottom lip. His forehead glistened. “Two no trump.”
“I make beet pickles all the time,” Prunella said to Marietta.
She passed. So did Marietta.
I considered making a bid merely to interfere, but it was too risky. I led a card and Aubrey spread the dummy’s hand on the table.
“Go get some glasses,” Marietta said to Aubrey. “This wine is going to waste.”
A growl so soft it was almost inaudible came from the jaguar.
“Listen to that! She’s ordering me around and we’re not even married yet.”
Marietta looked hopeful. “Does that mean you’re considering it?”
“Not if you won’t wash my socks.” Aubrey ambled into the house and came back with two wine glasses.
“Who’s not drinking?” Prunella gave me a suspicious look. “Don’t tell me you’ve got a mickey of scotch in your jeans.”
“I promise I won’t tell you that,” I said. “What I have in my jeans is my own business.”
“I’m having a beer,” Aubrey said, pulling a tall bottle from his back pocket. “It’s Brazilian beer, made by Germans, and bottled in Canada. Which makes me a Renaissance kind of guy.”
“I don’t drink,” Marietta said, handing me the glass of wine that Prunella had poured for her. “That’s one of my saving graces. And I love it that you’re a Renaissance man, Aubrey. That is truly romantic.”
He said. “I bet you don’t do windows either.”
“Windows? Don’t you hire people to do windows?”
“Not when I’m married,” Aubrey said. “When I’m married, my wife cleans the windows.”
Marietta sighed. “You’re making this really difficult. I’m seeking a refuge and ease for my soul, not a job.” She made her contract of two no trump and picked up the other deck of cards while Prunella recorded the points scored.
Prunella took a delicate sip of wine as she watched Marietta deal.
I glanced toward the jaguar, but he was no longer lying in the sunshine. For a moment, I thought he had gone, but when my eyes adjusted, I saw that he had merely moved into the shade in order to drink from the fountain under the bamboo chimes. “I didn’t know you had a cat,” I said to Aubrey.
“I don’t. No one has a cat. Perhaps he has me.”
I glanced back at the fountain but the jaguar had disappeared. Perhaps to his cool lair under the leaves.
Marietta dealt. “Aubrey, I think we should discuss marriage in private. What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Seven Tibetan monks will be here for dinner.”
A yellow jacket landed on the rim of my wine glass, attracted by forbidden sweetness. I blew on him and he staggered to Prunella’s side of the table. She swatted at him with the score pad and he came back to me.
I went into the house and, though it took me so long I wondered if someone would notice and comment on it, came back with an ashtray. I sat down and lit a cigarette.
Prunella said, “Cristobal, for heaven’s sake, will you stop fooling around and bid? I’m going to sleep here.”
“Sorry, but I don’t want to share my wine with this small black and yellow person.” I blew cigarette smoke at the wasp and he reluctantly headed for the wisteria. Then I looked at my excellent hand and bid two clubs.
“That’s a demand bid!” Aubrey said. “You must have a big hand. I’ll pass.”
“Don’t you have any good cards at all, Aubrey?” Marietta took a tissue from her pocket and carefully cleaned a speck of cigarette ash from the tablecloth.
“You dealt,” Aubrey said. “If I don’t have anything, it’s your fault. And you can’t even make beet pickles. Can you make kugel? My mother always made kugel for me.”
“I can make kugel,” Marietta said.
“That changes things,” Aubrey said. “What do you put in it?”
“Rice, eggs and raisins.”
“That’s not kugel,” Aubrey said, “that’s rice pudding.”
The jaguar, a sinuous flow of muscles, stepped out from under the hosta leaves and came to lie beside Aubrey’s feet.
“How did your mother make kugel?” Marietta asked. “I don’t mind doing it a different way.”
Prunella said. “Two no trump.” That was encouraging. It meant she had good cards, too.
Marietta put her cards down and waved a hand at me.
“Six no trump,” I said. Making a small slam would be very pleasant. I do not care about the points, but Prunella would be delighted.
Aubrey passed and said, “Potatoes and onions, grated. And eggs, of course.”
“Is that all? Just potatoes and onions?” Marietta said. “That’s not sweet.”
Prunella swatted at the yellow jacket again. His darting flight, as he circled the table, betrayed irritation. If he stung the jaguar, we would be in trouble. If he stung Marietta, even bigger trouble.
“It’s not supposed to be sweet,” Aubrey said.
“If I make it with potatoes and onions,” Marietta said, “will you marry me?”
“I’ll think about it,” Aubrey said. “I’d have to taste the kugel first, of course.”
“Then we’re engaged,” Marietta said. “I know you’ll like my kugel.”
“I hope you made the right bid, Cristobal,” Prunella said. “It’s not easy to take twelve tricks.”
“Life is full of risks,” I said. “It’s your lead, Marietta.”
Marietta led the ace of hearts.
Aubrey moaned, then swallowed the last of his beer and put the bottle down firmly on the side table. “You’re not supposed to lead an ace against a slam contract.”
Marietta’s bottom lip quivered. “You’re not supposed to yell at your fiancée for playing the wrong card. I’d cancel the whole deal if it wasn’t a matter of life and death. I suppose you would enjoy seeing me executed.”
I laid my hand down for the dummy, saw Prunella smile and knew we were going to make the contract.
“It’s okay with me if you cancel,” Aubrey said. “This marriage thing was your idea in the first place.”
“I won’t make you any kugel.”
“Well, don’t be too hasty. It’s a long time since I had kugel.”
“A whole week, at least,” Prunella muttered.
“I take it we’re engaged again,” Marietta gazed at her hand. “What should I lead now?”
“You’re not allowed to ask your partner for direction,” I said.
“You change the rules every time we play.” Marietta led a small heart.
“Would you like a drink?” Aubrey said to Marietta. “There’s a jug of iced tea in the refrigerator.”
Marietta rose. “Cristobal, play my hand for me. I’ll get the tea.”
I slid into her chair and picked up her cards, hoping I wouldn’t be tempted to cheat and make a bad play. I needn’t have worried; her cards were worthless.
When Marietta returned, so did the wasp. I lit another cigarette in an attempt to defend myself against its bad temper.
“Aubrey, I don’t want a real marriage, just the legality. I want to live here, where I’ll be safe,” Marietta said. “Does that make you feel better?”
Aubrey put his cards down. “You don’t want me? You just want the convenience? Your words are wounding. I may cry.”
The jaguar rose and stared at Marietta. He was panting.
“It’s your turn to play a card, Aubrey,” Prunella said. “And if you don’t hurry up, you’ll have another cause for tears.”
Marietta reached over to pat Aubrey’s hand and I managed to knock her glass of iced tea across the table. Prunella grabbed the cards; I grabbed the wine glasses. Marietta scrunched the table cloth into a ball. “Oh, this is terrible,” she said. “I hate messes.”
“You can put the table cloth in the laundry room,” Aubrey said.
“That little room you wouldn’t let me see when you showed me through the house?” asked Marietta. “I’ve been dying to look in there.”
“It’s only a laundry room,” Aubrey said. “There is nothing to see.”
While Marietta went inside, Prunella put the cards back on the table.
A moment later, Marietta came back, her face pale. “I never saw such a stinking mess in my life. I suppose your closet is in the same condition?” She slumped into her chair. “I don’t think I will marry you after all.”
“Do you mean it’s all over between us?” Aubrey said. He looked at his empty beer bottle as if hoping it might refill itself.
“We made the slam, Cristobal,” Prunella said, gathering up the cards. “Six no trump, doubled and redoubled.”
I couldn’t remember Aubrey or Marietta doubling the contract, and I’d have noticed if Prunella redoubled, but she always tallies the score and I have found it wiser not to question her figures.
I picked up my glass. The wasp floated in the last inch of sunshine wine, his wings too wet to lift him to safety. I stuck my finger beneath him so he would have something to stand on and took him over to the wisteria, where he crawled onto a branch and began shaking his wings and cleaning himself.
“I’m leaving,” Marietta said. “I feel a migraine coming on.”
“I’ll walk out to the street with you,” Prunella said. She sighed. “I’m so disappointed. I was looking forward to a long, stimulating afternoon of bridge.”
“So was I. And looking forward to getting a husband, too,” Marietta said. “But men can be so uncooperative. Don’t you agree?”
The two women disappeared beneath the spreading branches of the golden locust trees, their voices fading. Then came the thud of car doors closing and the sound of engines starting. Aubrey went into the house and came back with another Renaissance beer. I tipped the last of the dandelion wine onto the grass for the yellow jacket and poured two fingers from the mickey of scotch I had in my jeans. Now that Marietta had taken the car, I would be forced to walk to my apartment, but I have endured worse.
“Was Marietta serious about marrying me?” Aubrey asked.
“She’s serious about everything.”
The jaguar padded over to the fountain for another drink of water, then disappeared under the hosta leaves.
Aubrey gazed up at the canopy of blue sky for a couple of minutes. “Perhaps I should go visit my brother in Alberta.”
“She’s flying south on Wednesday. Only three more days.”
He turned his gaze to me. “When you went into the house for the ashtray, did you happen to go into the laundry room?”
“I’ll clean up the mess.”
He smiled. “I was surprised to see that most of my compost pile had decided to move indoors. It rarely does that.” Then he was serious again. “Do you think Marietta will really assassinate the president?”
“She’s capable of it. But they may not let her back into the country.”
“What will you do if that happens?”
“Perhaps I can go to Alberta with you.”
I put my feet up on a wrought iron chair and leaned back, letting the sun bake the knots of tension from my muscles. The wasp came to examine my scotch, rejected it and dove on the dandelion wine in the grass. I heard a soft rumbling purr, but could not decide whether it was the jaguar or the happy breath of a now peaceful afternoon.
Also by Lea Tassie
Tour Into Danger
Cats in Clover
Cat Under Cover
Cats & Crayons
A Clear Eye
Green Blood Rising
Red Blood Falling