On the Garden Stairs

photograph posted by sweetreveriesblog on signsaboutloveandlife.tumblr.com

Everything felt like a dream, as though I was watching through someone else’s eyes.

I was standing in the shadows on a porch perched upon a hilltop. Looking right, across the trees, I could see the point where the mountains meet the ocean. In front of me, a steep staircase descended through a garden toward the red, dusty road. A young girl was hopping back and forth in front of the fence at the bottom. Her mother crouched nearby, gardening.

I had given the young girl, Magda Richards, her weekly piano lesson that morning but now it was time for me to go.

I had always loved this house and wanted to pause to enjoy my surroundings but I was feeling feverish, and tired after what had been a difficult lesson. Magda had had trouble focusing; she was excited because a girl her age was coming (“any moment now!”) to stay with them.

“Her name’s Ruby and she’s 10, too, and it’ll be like having a sister. Nanny and Leah are nice sisters but they’re just so much older than me. I wonder if she’s here yet!”

The neighbours’ housekeeper had a child who showed uncommon talent and apparently the Richards had invited her to live with them during the week so she could attend the school in their district. It was a better school than the one near her home and they would drive her, so there would be no more waiting for a bus that always arrived too late.

Feeling dizzy, I crossed the porch and opened the gate at the top of the stairs. I tried to focus, listening for the electric buzz that signalled it had latched properly behind me.

I looked at the small wooden sign that hung next to the gate as if seeing it for the first time: greying wood, the house number, 42 1/2 E, carved and painted sky blue, two delicately painted birds, pink and yellow, wings stretching wide.

The long staircase was lined on either side with bougainvillea and hibiscus. Their blossoms spilled over each other, bright petals dusting the steps. I closed my eyes, breathing in the garden’s perfume. It was intoxicating in the heat of the afternoon sun.

I was partway down the staircase in the shade of a large tree when a rusted white pickup truck stopped in the shadows in a cloud of red dust.

Eight or ten children sat on the flatbed, all talking boisterously. A wiry man in blue batik pants and shirt climbed out of the driver’s seat while a tall woman alit from the other side, holding a little girl in her arms. The woman’s bright pink headscarf was wrapped tightly around her hair and matched her patterned dress. Her dark skin was smooth and dewy.

She greeted Mrs. Richards in a soft, lyrical voice and introduced each of the children. Upon hearing her name, Ruby clambered out of the truck. She was tall and lanky like her parents, with a broad smile and sincere eyes. Her hair was flecked with red dust from riding in the open.

Watching the scene, a pang of inexplicable sadness washed over me. Confused, I realized that I was out of place on the stairs of a house that was not mine, in a scene to which I did not belong.

I staggered and everything faded to grey. I don’t know how long I floated between sleep and wakefulness but I finally awoke with a start. The glaring sun burned hot on my pillow and I could hear Cape doves cooing nearby.

That sadness clung to me as I tried to understand the images in my head. I wasn’t sure if I had fainted on the stairs or if I had dreamed the whole thing. I wondered whether the Richards had brought me home, but then I realized I didn’t know anyone by that name.

How could a dream have touched me so deeply?

It stayed with me; a voice, a smell, a splash of blossoms across a wall would instantly transport me back.

And then, months later, I saw Ruby walking along the road. I was driving but pulled over, shaking. Before I could call her name, she looked up, her eyes boring right into mine.

In that moment, I believed the dream had somehow been her crying out for help but now I don’t know. Maybe it was just the malaria.

I called her name but she never looked back, she just kept walking.


Word count: 750

I did it! I didn’t think I would be able to cut this story down from 2000 words to 750 but somehow I managed. The story began as a dream I had in South Africa. I woke up one morning feeling the same strange disorientedness as the narrator and frantically wrote down everything I could remember. It took a lot of editing to make sense of it and to shorten it, but I think I preserved the original sense of the dream and my favourite details. Plus, this week’s prompts seemed to fit, so it was worth it in the end.

Click on the above badge to see the details and rules of the Speakeasy #163 or to submit an entry yourself.


24 thoughts on “On the Garden Stairs

  1. Love this. And love being inspired by dreams. I did something similar a few months ago. Turned a dream into a poem with heavy editing. I am reading a lot of Mark Strand poetry right now and his poems have this quality too

    • Thank you, Jen. It’s great when you wake up and know the dream you just had is something you can work with. Inspiration comes from everywhere.

  2. I wouldn’t have guessed this started as a much longer piece, it flowed very well. (Sometimes heavy editing leaves a story feeling choppy.) I like how her uncertainty leaves us wondering exactly what had happened.

  3. Fascinating. Both your’s and the one you wrote. I do not see who one more word is needed for this story. I remember reading your comment to Suzanne and thought I would have to find this too long story you wrote. I’m glad I got to read it. I enjoyed your descriptive parts, that’s not something I do much, I tried to put some in my story this week. Well, maybe two lines.

    • Thanks (again – I replied to the comment on your story first)! Maybe I’m mucking up a perfectly good story by adding things back in – you’ll have to tell me if you think so when I post the longer version.

    • Thanks, Kathy! It doesn’t always work, and I don’t always remember them, but I find dreams can be a great source of inspiration if you can mine them properly.

    • Thank you so much! I wasn’t sure if is done too many mystical stories but the imagery of the dream was quite powerful and I couldn’t resist.

  4. Well done on the editing! It is hard to whittle away 1,000+ words. Really lovely details — the painted birds, the bougainvillea. Dreams, especially when ill, are so powerful.

    • Thank you, Meg. The birds and bougainvillea were especially clear in my dream, so I had to keep them in. I’m happy they were noticed and appreciated!

  5. What a brilliant idea! The notion that Malaria could bring on the experience of clairaudience. This story is fascinating and chilling all at the same time. I’m still smiling as I savor the idea you’ve brought forth. A brilliant take on the prompt!

    • I’m so glad you picked up on all those elements! Very reassuring to hear you did 🙂 Thank you for reading thoughtfully and for leaving such a generous compliment.

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