Robert Diamante

The Sandman’s Garden

There was no doubt that the ruddy old gentleman who moved into the neighborhood was from the South. He spoke with strung-out vowels and sauntered about swabbing his neck and forehead with a handkerchief like a man reckoned to heat and long afternoons in the shade. The colorful stranger quickly became the subject of many wagging tongues up and down the block. Some who watched him from afar became fearful that a madman had moved in. But mostly, people were amused by his eccentricities. He was often observed in his patch of a yard turning in circles and pointing at things that were not there. He would dig the heel of his sandal into the dirt, as if marking out something significant, while talking sweetly to the birds and squirrels. Sometimes he looked up into the tree branches to warn a cawing crow to quit its fussing. Still, his harshest words were only ever directed against the occasional stray cat “doing its business” in his yard, which he would oblige to move on if it valued its tail.

When the neighborhood boys began to taunt him (for no other reason than that is what boys do), the man stood firm and met their determination with genteel patience. Suddenly they were digging out the crusty weeds that had overtaken his backyard during the house’s years of abandonment. That he had charmed them appeared to be magic to some of their parents, but not to their dislike. The boys had been a nuisance from the start of their summer break and needed occupation. And the house that the cheerful stranger had moved into was one of several eyesores on the block in need of renovation. It  was a perfect match. He had his ways, to be sure, but soon enough parents were assured that the man was hardly a danger to anyone, least of all a crow, or a cat, or even a child.

One bright summer afternoon, as he was strolling around his newly turned backyard casting seeds from a paper bag and humming a tune, the man heard a voice from overhead.

“What’s that your humming?” the voice asked.

The man looked around. “I declare! What is that voice from yonder? Could it be Juliet? Where could she be?” he drawled.

A young woman stepped out from the shadows of the second-floor porch on the house beside his.

“Up here,” she said.

Even though the sun was behind him and low in the sky, the man raised a fat hand to his forehead like an explorer discovering a new horizon.

“Up here,” she said again.

The man finally rested his arms at his side and let out an exaggerated long-winded sigh. “Well Juliet, after all!”

The young woman’s somber face loosened and broke into a pale smile. “What was that song you were humming?” she asked again.

“Humming? Mercy! I do the strangest things when I don’t even know I’m doing them.”

“It was pretty,” she said.

To the man, the young woman was an awkward sight. A long floral print shift fanned out from beneath an overcoat, which was pulled tightly around her small frame. It was an odd combination for such a warm summer day. He lifted a hand to his chin, pretending to think hard at the question.

“Did it go something like this?”

And he began to hum the tune. Then he reached down into the small bag and cast out a handful of seeds while exhaling a note at the end of the refrain with a joyful hiss. Seeds sparkled in the late day sun like raindrops.

The young woman nodded. “What is it?”

“Why, it’s the Sandman’s Song!” he called out.

She looked down, puzzled, so the man stepped forward toward the fence.

“Don’t you know the Sandman’s Song?” he asked.

After a moment, the young woman shook her head shyly.

“Well, don’t you know the story of Hansel and Gretel?”

“Of course. Everyone knows that story. Some kids get lost in the forest and find a house made of gingerbread. Then they kill the witch.”

The man nodded agreeably. “There was a composer, whose name I cannot quite recall at this moment, who made that very story into an opera. And he gave the Sandman a song. The song you heard me humming was the Sandman’s Song most certainly, which he used to lullaby poor Hansel and Gretel safely to sleep when they first got lost in that dark forest.”

The young woman frowned. “I wouldn’t want to meet some old man singing in a forest late at night. That’s creepy.”

The man smiled. “Not creepy at all! God sent him to protect the children! Along with a host of angels to watch over them. To keep them safe during their slumber. All children have guardian angels, didn’t you know that?”

The young woman appeared weary. “I’d like to believe it,” she said.

“Isn’t it good to know we all have someone to look out for us?” the man asked, but it was more of a statement than anything to agree or disagree with.

The young woman gestured to the yard. “You’re doing so much work back here. Putting a lot into it.”

“Love, mostly. Love belongs where it’s needed most. There’s always plenty of places to plant it and watch it grow.”

There was something sad about the way he said those words, but the young woman did not ask anything further of the man.

“Plenty of places for love to grow, indeed,” he said. He turned from her, stuffed his plump fist into the paper bag, and began to cast seed around the yard once more. He was humming the Sandman’s Song as the sun turned the pale blue sky to orange, and the shadows on the porch where the young woman watched him deepened and turned black.

Angry voices awakened the man. Even his cat, who usually nipped at his toes and licked his face at dawn, sat pert on the edge of the bed listening. There was a rising tide of voices flowing in through the window from the house next door. First came an insistent, desperate shrill, followed by a low and angry growl. Each voice held the vicious fury of discontent. The argument arose and fell without compunction that any other ears were set their way. The man could only partially make out the words of what was undoubtedly a lover’s quarrel.

“The young believe that the world revolves around them,” he said to his cat, “as if their passions demand more attention.” The feline batted its tail and began to purr loudly.

All at once, there was the loud slam and the sound of breaking glass.

The man sat up, alert to any indication of violence. But after several minutes knew the quarrel had ended. All became the still of morning once again. He laid back and prepared to doze off, but then his cat climbed onto his belly and glowered down into his face. The man resigned that the day would start earlier than usual; there was little choice but to rise.

“Well, okay, you all win,” he said. He slipped from the bed unwillingly, stretched, then pulled on his robe. By the time he reached the kitchen, the argument from the house next door—like a sudden storm that had blown through—was forgotten. His thoughts were on his garden.

Coffee mug in hand, the man stood on the porch off his kitchen surveying the work that had been done in his back yard. Good soil had been trucked in and mixed with the fair soil that the boys had overturned two weeks before. Rain had come through feeding the grass seed he had cast, which was growing in quickly. Beds built up along the edges of his property were ready for plantings once he set his mind to what was right, given the quality of sun, which he noted daily. He sipped his coffee and descended the wooden stairs to the yard, and began strolling about plotting out in his mind where the best things should be planted. How lovely the garden would be when it ripened!

“Morning,” he heard.

The young woman’s voice floated down from overhead. Sunlight falling between the two houses covered the man’s face when he looked up. He raised his hand to shield his eyes from the glare.

“Why, Juliet—”

He carefully stepped over one of the beds along the side yard fence and rested his elbow on the rusty chain link between the two properties. The other side was a mess. Really, it was a junkyard. Clearly, the owners cared little for its maintenance. He would tackle that battle once he was firmly established in the neighborhood. He had only recently learned that the ramshackle apartment building beside his house was a carousel for the young, poor, and unsettled. The only habitable apartment was on the second floor.

“—good morning to you, too!” he replied.

The young woman was leaning on the porch railing. To the man, it appeared as if the rotted wood might crumble away at any moment. Suddenly upright, she took a step back into the shadow of the overhang and folded her arms, becoming little more than a dark silhouette within the doorway behind her.

“You’re up early,” she said.

“Oh, this isn’t early a’tol. Why, half the day is gone to my mind.” He suspected that she knew he was merely being polite.

“Your grass is growing in fast.”

He turned to survey the yard. “Indeed, it is. Kentucky Bluegrass. That’s some hardy carpet right there once it gets its purchase. Soft as cotton but as tough as nails. Can’t choke it out with gasoline.”

The young woman was quiet for a moment, then said. “I’m sorry if we woke you.”

“Woke me?” The old man had already dismissed the quarrel, but he recalled a few of the angry words. “My dear, the only thing I hear before sunrise is the yowling of my hungry feline pawing at my toes.”

Her shadow rocked back and forth on the balcony above the ruined yard. “He left,” she said.

The man knew that the girl had begun to cry, love’s sting still fresh in her heart. How tragic, he thought, that the wizened melancholy of work-hardened love is not a thing the heart is born with. What consolation can the aged give to the young when first love slams its door?

“Dear child, the sweetness of romance is in the bud. But the real strength of love lay deep within its roots. You two need time is all.” Indeed, she was truly tragic, “I’m sure he will return.”

The young woman stepped out from the porch’s shadow, and the man could plainly see the swollen oval of her belly pushing out from her threadbare nightgown. Suddenly, the young woman appeared just a lost child to him, her frightened body slumped forward full of despair and tears.

He sighed, “Oh, my.”

“He says he doesn’t want it. He blames me for it.”

This scene was not unfamiliar to the man, and he knew the outcome was unlikely to be happy. But there was always hope. Hope for the young man’s return. Hope that the baby would grow to know it was wanted and loved. The man tried to goad the young woman from her lugubrious mood.

“Child, he’s scared, is all. He will return. You just wait and see. Once he’s had time to think things over. Now, tell me, when is your precious baby is to be born?”

She shrugged, “Any day.”

The man smiled up at her. “Well, you must care for yourself, now. Every child is precious, including you. You must remain strong for the sake of your baby.”

The young woman smiled down at him weakly. “You’re like my Sandman,” she said.

The sun had risen higher and was now reaching over the tops of the houses. He raised a hand to his brow and wiped away the sweat. “As such, I will ask God to send his angels to look over you and your soon-to-be-born child, my dear. You take good care.”

Nearly a week passed with no sounds of altercation from the house next door. Sightings of the young woman were infrequent, and there was no indication that the young father-to-be had returned. Then one night, just past midnight, the man was roused from his sleep by the soft, insistent cries of a newborn floating in through the open bedroom window. His cat, who was perched on the edge of the bed, looked over its shoulder at the man and meowed loudly.

“Indeed, you old thing, you,” he whispered agreeably. The man said a prayer and fell back to sleep.

When dawn came, he lay in bed and listened for any sounds of the baby. The drone of traffic from the distant freeway filtered in on a welcomed cool breeze, along with the cheerful pips from a cardinal in the tree beside the house. His cat batted its tail and jumped from the bed and was soon yowling from the kitchen below. The man rose and started his morning hopeful to catch a glimpse of the young girl and her newborn child sometime during the day.

With his coffee cup in hand, he walked out onto his back porch and descended to the lawn. He walked around the yard mapping out the mounds of earth and which plantings would go in first once they arrived from the nursery. Then he noticed a stray weed that had made its way over the edging into one of the beds. He reached down to pick it out. Several flies were busily surveying a small disruption in the soil near the fence. He stood up and eyed it curiously, then became annoyed. Even the crows in the canopy above cawed insistently.

“Damn strays,” he cursed, “doing their business where they don’t belong.”

Throughout the day, he looked up to the porch next door expectantly, hoping for the young woman to appear. He listened for the sounds of her newborn crying, the slightest coo, the thought of which warmed him greatly. But the house was strangely quiet. He said another prayer and vowed that if by noon she had not appeared, he would go over.

Robert Diamante is a writer and professional photographer based in Maine, USA. His fiction and essays have appeared in Adornment Magazine, The Waking: Ruminate Magazine, North by Northeast: An Anthology of Writers from Maine, North by Northeast 2 (May 2021) and The Dissident. His photography is part of the permanent collection at the University of Southern Maine and the Brown University Library.