He pulled a thin stem ending a tight bud from the small star magnolia tree as we followed the trail through a grey February morning in which the trees mullioned the sky in a crazy leading of dark branches. I was cold and moving through the public gardens as if they were a jogging trail, walking too fast to do much more than frown at the man who snapped the branch as I passed.
I thought he might have waited until I had come close enough to see his fingers on the branch before he tugged it away from the bare mass of other branches, most ending in those little flares of grey green buds. They were still pulled tight and I pulled my jacket closer to my neck as I passed.
The gardens are usually mostly empty, and few of the people wandering the grounds speak to you; however, when he fell into step beside me, he didn’t seem to take up enough space for his joining me to feel invasive. We walked for a few steps before he stopped at another tree and said, “If you’ll wait a bit, I’ll open the gate by the fairy pond and show you how the creek strand below that hollow.”
My feet stopped at the sound of his voice and I glanced over to verify park insignia on his jacket. He wasn’t wearing a jacket, just a pair of skinny, forest-green jeans and what looked like a faded camouflage sweatshirt. He looked official. Even his hair was pulled tight to his skull; silver-brown as a squirrel’s and now that I’d stopped and he turned back to the tree, I saw that it was braided tightly and hung down to just below his belt. He was thinner than I’d thought at first—his shirt puffed out as he reached among the branches of another magnolia.
The camo print was different from most of the one’s I’d seen before. This one seemed to be printed with subtle diamonds of silver, green, and tan maple bark; a design for a woodland Harlequin. I looked around and saw a few people wandering in the gardens, closer to the formal sections. Watching them, I rolled my head around once, relaxing my shoulders.
After he’d checked the branches, we walked together to the section where a fairy pond had been created. There were two ponds, one shallow enough to show the bottom year round and the other just deep enough for the leaves to tan the water to opacity. There was a bench overlooking the larger pond and a tiny Japanese maple, barely visible amongst the other bare stems arching over the water. There was bench beside the smaller pond, on a raised path beside another magnolia tree. We were taking the path that led by the railing around the larger pond.
I stopped to curl my hands around the iron railings, but my companion kept going to the gate on the other side of the path. Here, the pond drained down a slope into Cypress Creek. It wasn’t always locked, but you weren’t supposed to leave the paths. He opened the gate and waved a hand over the opening. “Watch your feet and hold on to the railing until I get a light.”
The gate opened onto a six-inch drop onto uneven ground beside a trickle of water that left the ground soft and friable. I swung myself around, balancing on the ground and clinging to the railing. Snakes lived in the pond, I’d seen them. It was cold, but that probably would just make them cranky.
As I tried to avoid sinking up to my ankles in mud and giving the snakes a chance, my companion jumped lightly down and closed the gate. He then took the magnolia bud and struck it against the edge of the brick and concrete path.
The flower opened with a snap and burst of light, as if he’d struck a match instead of a flowerbud. Light sloshed out of the blossom, running down his arm like wax. The narrow drainage area was suddenly greener; although not much brighter.
I glanced at the gate, but it seemed that the railing no longer had an opening and, as the light diffused to where I was standing, the iron I was holding seemed to burn my hand like acid. I let go of the bars, shaking my hands and looking at my palms.
“It’s not a permanent injury,” he said. Lifting the flower up, he showed me a sandy footpath. “My name’s Robin. Let’s continue our walk along here.”