The woman watched while he carefully tamped down the soil around the seedling, firming the soil as tenderly as a gentle doctor might probe his patient’s delicate stomach. His movements were precise, efficient, yet his demeanour was unquestionably relaxed.
Not a hair on his head was out of place, yet it appeared unbrushed; there was not a spare gram of flesh on his slender frame, though he was wiry rather than undernourished; his face bore few lines or wrinkles, but the blue-gray eyes suggested many years of living, probably hard rather than healthy. He clearly loved his trees.
The planting completed, he leant back on his heels to appraise the work. Noticing a few crumbs of earth had dropped on the pink growth flush, he stooped again and blew them off. Perfect. He’d grown the small plant from a seed, and could imagine a grand tree flourishing into the future, would be able to watch it grow, flower, fruit, deciduate, and repeat the process once again. How many times?
She observed the whole ritual, admiring the devotion with which he worked. Work? If this was work, then how would the man play? What tenderness might he offer to his mate?
She banished the line of thought, unconsciously reproaching herself; this man had accepted her offer of help with his planting, nothing more. She’d said that she’d appreciate any knowledge he might pass on to her.
“I’ve nothing much to teach,” he’d said modestly,”But feel free to come along and carry a bucket. You might pick something up.”
He gathered a bundle of dry grass and leaves, and thickly mulched around the young plant, apparently oblivious to her presence. She felt that she didn’t exist for him, that his work would have been no less satisfying, absorbing, had he been alone. The sensation was not particularly pleasant, and she smiled to herself, recognizing the barely suppressed romance still flitting about her mind.
“Feel like a cup of tea?” The question startled her, and she wondered about the enigmatic smile on his face. Had he recognized her infatuation? No, perhaps not, for he’d turned back to pick up the tools immediately, almost as if he’d been talking to himself.
They walked back up toward the house, with her attempts to invite conversation only partly successful.
“How did you come to working with plants in the first place?”
“From my father I guess.”
“He was a great gardener then, was he?”
“No. As a matter of fact, he was a chemist?” Oblique, to say the least. After a long pause he offered a vague explanation. “More of a pure scientist you could say, but he was quite a specialist in the field of chemical analysis. They say he could identify the alkaloids in a plant just by tasting it.”
There was pride in his voice, and she noticed a brief sad downturn to the corner of his mouth. His eyes flickered for an emotional instant, then fixed coldly on her as if to caution. Probe no further.
The conversation while he prepared the tea was minimal, and she wondered if she’d offended him in her reference to his father. No frown on his forehead to suggest it. Simply the expression of a man performing another ritual: the tea ceremony.
They drank the tea, talked about trees and the ongoing environmental destruction, she with passion, sometimes anger, and he sympathetically agreeing with her, yet conveying the impression that he would never be found beside her at an anti-logging demonstration. He would prefer to stay at home with his trees.
“Do you ever get lonely?” She hadn’t intended to embarrass him, nor even to pry. Just curiosity.
“Do you ever stop talking?”