“Last name?” “Rogers.” Type, click. Click. “Renée?” She nodded. Click. “Okay, you’re all set.” The man in the booth glanced up at the darkening sky. “Looks like it’s going to be one of those unpredictable-weather days. Good thing you’re covered up. Enjoy the garden — you’ll have it mostly to yourself.” She nodded again and turned away, winding her thick brown scarf more closely around her neck as she walked through the gate and into the gusty wind.
The wide, wet gravel path split just ahead. On the left, she knew she’d find a small stone seat under an ancient Japanese maple tree, one of her favorite spots; the small stream trailing off to her right would lead her to the large pond that was the central feature of the garden. As she looked down at a golden-orange leaf that had just drifted down into the stream, a bird flew overhead, its reflection caught and distorted by the rippling water. Straightening her trench coat, she hesitated, then walked slowly ahead, the stream trickling companionably by her side.
As she followed the curving path past evergreen cypresses, shrubs that would bloom in the spring, and stately fir trees, she became aware that the soothing, liquid sound was gradually getting louder. The stream became a small waterfall gushing between granite boulders, foamy waves at its base finally settling back into the quiet rhythm of the stream. Startled, she realized that, in all the times she’d been to this garden, she had never taken the path in this direction.
The wind continued to bluster through the trees, sending bright red and gold-flecked leaves skittering onto the rippling surface of the pond as she approached. She sat gingerly on the weathered cedar bench at the edge of the water, breathing in the strangely pleasant damp smell of the mossy wood. “Why did I come here today?”, she thought, shivering a little as the clouds swelled and blackened around the tops of the tallest trees. Pulling on tweedy knit gloves, she leaned forward, looking at the surface of the pond.
Fallen leaves and pine needles bobbed on water disturbed by the temperamental wind. Fat raindrops made tiny, continuous circular waves. Two ducks paddled by close to shore, intent on shelter under the gold-leaved branches of a majestic weeping willow to her left.
Across the pond, a man and woman walked rapidly towards the wooden bridge that arched over the far end of the pond, a small boy between them, pulling on their hands. On the bridge, the man lifted the boy so he could see over the handrail into the darkly swirling water a few feet below. “Ooh, Daddy!”, the boy squealed. “Look how different I look in the water!” “Come on, let’s go,” his mother urged. “We’ve got to get you to Brad’s birthday party before you’re completely soaked.” They hurried on, voices disappearing with a fresh gust of wind.
Renée stood up, stepping forward onto a flat rock that jutted out over the unsettled water.
Her own birthday had been the day before.
Shelley, a co-worker, had unexpectedly invited her out for a celebratory dinner after work, even giving her a gift: a cap made of brilliant fuchsia wool that Shelley had hand-knitted herself. “This color is so you!”, Shelley had exclaimed. “It’s perfect with your dark hair and eyes!” Surprised, Renée had thanked her, and later, when they were both freshening up in the ladies’ room, she had tried on her new hat, smiling shyly at the other girl’s delighted reaction to her image in the mirror.
Renée looked down at her reflection in the water. She was covered up, muffled in brown and beige and gray. It was difficult to distinguish herself from the nearly-bare trees mirrored on the surface of the pond. Colorless. Was it an illusion, a trick of the changing light as a streak of sunlight broke through the wind-chased clouds? Was that really her?
The ducks, startled out of their leafy cover by a branch falling into the pond, flew up and out of sight, stirring up the shallow water. Renée sank back down on the bench, wrapping her arms around herself, trying to stay warm, staring into the water.
Leaves, branches, pine needles. They floated on the surface of the pond, but all gradually became water-logged, sinking, settling to the bottom. Decomposing. And too easily disturbed by any movement.
Surely there was more to her than what others could see on the surface. But if she looked beneath, if she dug deeper into her past, she knew she risked stirring up something ugly. And she had always avoided that risk.
When they’d left the restaurant, she had hugged Shelley gratefully, but as she was walking to her car, she suddenly became so uncomfortable that she’d pulled off the fuchsia cap with a disturbing sense of relief.
Her ninth birthday. Her mother had told her that one of her presents would be a new coat, and Renée had asked for a scarf to wear with it. A bright pink scarf, just like the one her best friend Amelia wore. When she had eagerly torn away all the wrapping paper, she had found a dark brown scarf. And a beige coat. “Brown goes better with this coat”, her mother explained. “And it’s the same as mine! Now we match!”
She could still feel the crushing weight of that terrible disappointment, the constriction of her throat from the effort to hold back tears, as she dutifully blew out nine candles on the elaborate birthday cake. After the party, she and her mother had stood in front of the big mirror in the entry hall, wearing their matching coats and scarves.
She was still seeing herself through eyes that were not her own. She had only wanted to see herself as a reflection of people around her and who they wanted her to be, as someone who should match someone else, go along with outside opinions, foreign ideas, someone else’s truths. And she was still wearing a dull brown scarf.
Renée jumped up, agitated, the scarf too tight, choking her. She unwound it, letting the ends hang down freely, feeling with relief that she could breathe again. As she turned away from the pond, she saw that in the shallow water under the willow branches, the water had once again become clear.
She, the real Renée, was more than the parts of herself she could see reflected in others. She had been content to let the world believe she was no more than what they could see on the surface. No, more than that, she had been content to let herself believe that! That she was no more than a girl who looked nice, worked in a cubicle, drove an ordinary car, wore beige clothes.
But Shelley thought of her as brighter than beige. She could think of herself that way too, she thought, as she walked slowly away from the pond, as more. She could be herself.
Renée didn’t feel so cold, now that she was moving. She was walking back up the gravel path, every step propelling her forward into hope, into a new way of seeing herself, into the sunlight that was now spilling through the lifting clouds, the promise of clearing skies. Nearing the garden entrance, she tucked her gloves into her bag, felt for her car keys, and touched something soft. She stopped.
Eyes widening, she pulled out the fuchsia cap. For a long moment, she could only stare at it, turning it over and over in her hands, fingers tracing the intricate cable pattern. Suddenly, she laughed out loud, the sound swirling into the wind that still blew teasingly around the garden, as she put on the hat and continued walking toward the entrance.
Click. She closed the gate behind her, still smiling.
She waved at the surprised attendant, calling, “The garden’s gorgeous today! Thank you!” And she caught a glimpse of herself reflected in the window of his booth: head high, her cap as bright as the azaleas that would transform the garden in the spring.
She knew she didn’t see everything below the surface just yet. But she was getting warmer.