The Chicken, the Lavender, and the Empress Josephine by Terry O’Shaughnessy

Beryl had over-prepared, that much was clear, and her short sweating hairdo was already fusing into clumps in the steam of the kitchen heat. Her daughter’s new in-laws were coming for Sunday lunch, and plump Beryl—broad cheeks, blue eyes, pink stretchy slacks—was nervous. Donna had insisted on a champagne lunch in the yard (she called it a “garden” now), and demanded a cold buffet with fancy apple salad and chicken breasts with pistachio stuffing. “Pistachio?” Beryl hissed, never having said the word before in her kitchen. Now bones and shells stippled the surface of her countertop like some undiscovered archeological site. Escaped fossils kept crunching beneath the cork heels of Beryl’s busy sandals.

Donna leaned against the kitchen wall, talking on the phone to Brent. She had put him on speakerphone so she could paint her nails at the same time, and Beryl listened as she swiftly, expertly, sliced strawberries, juice flying.

“Of course, the 20th century was just a footnote to the genius of Ezra Pound,” he said, the father of her future grandchildren. Beryl’s blade paused, then guillotined the remaining shivery fruit. Donna—long hair, long legs, short temper—bridled. Beryl could see how her daughter loved Brent’s clever talk, how she would twist her hair and touch her throat whenever Brent declaimed, which was often.

“Now listen, baby,” Donna purred into the phone as Beryl pulled at the elastic waistband of her slacks and leaned into the drawer for another knife. “There’ll be Waldorf salad and free-range chicken breasts stuffed with pistachios and lots of other good things too. And champagne, of course.”

Beryl changed knives again, seeking a sharper edge. She wasn’t exactly looking forward to lunch. Nothing better than barbecued steak and a potato salad with lots of red onion and paprika, as far as she was concerned. But she supposed that Donna’s mother-in-law to-be had never eaten that in the embassy kitchens of Paris where Brent’s father was posted. No, Beryl corrected herself, they had probably never eaten in a kitchen at all, ever, period. Not one like hers anyway, with its bright yellow walls and three ceramic ducks migrating towards the new four-slice toaster.

“Napoleon had a passion for chicken, you know,” continued Brent. “He even brought special chefs with him to the battlefield. God, the French have such a genius for life.”

To Beryl’s observing eye, this was too much for Donna and she watched her daughter arch her spine as if Brent had caressed the soft hairs at the back of her neck. Beryl knew that Donna wasn’t used to such richness on a regular basis—she had not been brought up that way. She moaned continuously about Beryl’s plain taste (“Spartan” she had started calling it). Donna despised the fact that every pair of underpants in her mother’s drawer was white, and that their living room was hung with exactly two pictures: The Fathers of Confederation and a framed illustrated map entitled Birds of Eastern Canada.

Apparently, the only thing to escape Donna’s censure was the back garden which Beryl had lilied and larkspurred into a heady mass of voluptuous flowers—a place completely at odds with her scratchy white towels that hung like soldiers in the old-fashioned avocado green bathroom downstairs. And as if Beryl wasn’t bad enough, in Donna’s view, there was her father, Harry. Within five minutes of meeting anyone, he would tell the story of how he lost his sense of smell in the army—how he hadn’t smelled anything in years and why doesn’t someone challenge him to sniff an onion.

“Where’s Dad?” Donna asked as she hung up the phone, sharp as scissors. Beryl tried to soften things. She tried to understand that Donna had learned a lot for Brent. About chicken going with pistachios, and about nuts and apples in mayonnaise and how it was salad. That champagne was served in a glass called a flute and that it went with blackberry juice (Brent called it “cassis”) if you happened to be in France at that moment. She knew Donna felt so lucky, so fortunate, to have landed Brent, she couldn’t understand why Beryl and Harry weren’t off their heads to welcome him into the family.

“Dad’s mowing the lawn,” answered Beryl. “It’s like a golf course out there.”

“Well, I hope he’s careful. I want to show the roses to Brent’s mother. Especially the Empress Josephine. Brent saw it the other day and said it’s very rare.”

“Empress-my-Eye,” backhanded Beryl. So that accounted for Donna’s approval of her garden. “I found it in the weeds behind the train station.”

“Mother, don’t you realize how rare it is. It’s the one thing Brent wants his mother to see.”

Beryl rolled her lips back and forth, testing the taste of this remark. “We could show her the beefsteak tomatoes too,” she suggested with a sly eyebrow. “They’re big as T-bones this year.”

“No, Mother. No. Not.”

Beryl pickled her daughter with a vinegar eye as the high whine of Harry’s favourite toy, a grass mower he could sit on and drive called “Lawn Buddy”, began its neighbourhood torment.

“I hope he knows what he’s doing,” Donna warned. Beryl hated that tone in Donna’s voice so she hatcheted a cantaloupe in half, then another one, but didn’t feel any better for it. She was tired of the Empress Josephine and Ezra Pound and pistachio not for ice cream but for chicken. She longed for a beer to settle her nerves and stomach.

“Mother, you know Dad won’t care if he nicks the Empress Josephine. Remember last summer when he couldn’t stop Lawn Buddy and everything was razed to the ground?”

“Razed” was another new word, Beryl noted. She remembered perfectly well the day Harry hadn’t been able to turn Lawn Buddy off and had mowed her garden down to nothing–the day he chopped the whole herbal bed to bits and the aromatic leaves had been tossed over the yard like an enormous salad–the day Harry had sliced every single rosebush to stubs. The street had smelled of chives and roses and lavender for an entire afternoon. Harry had defended, said he hadn’t known he was too close to the flowers. Said if he could have smelled them coming, he would have stopped himself.

“Go and change,” Beryl instructed her daughter, and the two of them paused, the words hanging in the air. Beryl turned away first and wiped her hands on a red-checkered tea towel. “Don’t worry, honey. I’ll go check on your Dad.”

Donna still wore the ghost of her teenaged face, the sweetness of her eight-year old worried frown, and this was enough to undo Beryl, made her want to do anything Donna wanted. Made her want to tell her in so many words that Brent was the lucky one, that maybe this Ezra Pound, whoever he was, was an idiot. She looked at the cantaloupe halves overflowing with strawberries and wondered if a few sky-blue borage flowerets wouldn’t dress them up nice.

“Just keep him away from the roses,” Donna threatened dramatically, circling a tantrum. The peevish quality of her tone unsettled Beryl, made her feel she had spoiled Donna by letting her get away with talk like that. Donna’s running commentary on her wedding gifts had been appalling. Her sarcastic remarks about the fondue pot from Mrs. Brown next door, and the pickle forks from the girl she used to babysit, had stilled Beryl’s heart.

When Harry and Beryl got married, they’d only been able to afford a bed and a blind for the window. With the money left over, they bought themselves some garden furniture for the living room—collapsible lounge chairs in red and white plastic, and a tiny second-hand television with a snowy picture. Harry had added a ball of steel wool to the TV antenna to try and get the picture to focus—then tried wrapping the whole set in silver foil when it still wouldn’t work. But the TV’s sound was clear enough, and they both would sit in their lawn chairs of an evening, enjoying the shows. Beryl would make snacks with mayonnaise and cheese slices from a magazine recipe and Harry would say, “B., I sure smell something great for dinner!” And they would both die laughing because they knew he hadn’t smelled anything for years.

Beryl discarded her apron and unlatched the back door, pausing to deadhead a scarlet snapdragon—a “common florist’s dream” Brent had called it. This is the man my daughter has chosen, Beryl reminded herself, though she couldn’t for the life of her understand how it had happened. The question that had ignited Beryl since Donna first said she was engaged asked itself again and again: In what way had she, Beryl, revealed the world so that her daughter could believe that this man was her husband? How had it happened? Brent was the kind of man Beryl would never understand. Educated at Harvard, a diplomatic family, stamps all over his passport. Even though, for all his family’s money, he still dressed in cotton shirts with threadbare collars, and wore his loafers without socks. It made Donna seem a fresh mystery to Beryl, that a daughter of hers could navigate such a creature.

At dinner last winter, Brent had paused before refusing the ham with pineapple pieces with a look that Beryl was coming to know. Sort of pompous and calculating at the same time.

“You know, I read that when Napoleon was on his way back home from battle, he would send word ahead to Josephine that she shouldn’t bathe because he wanted to smell her natural scent.”

Beryl had snorted. Harry had looked completely mystified.

“He wanted to smell her?” Harry asked, almost in a whisper.

“I think that’s kind of neat,” said Brent, and Donna giggled. Harry’s face underwent a subtle change, a paling. He didn’t like the thought of Donna smelling in Brent’s bed, that’s for sure, and certainly couldn’t picture him coming home from battle. Beryl had intervened.

“Enough ham, Brent?”

Beryl shook her head to clear her thoughts and re-threaded a stray mist of sweet-peas that were fraying from a wooden trellis as a breeze seemed to lift her whole hairdo.

When she and Harry had married, the whole street had thrown a party. Several guys from Harry’s regiment had come, handsome and polished up to a shine in their uniforms. Beryl’s friends had taken them in their arms and they had all danced in the street while Beryl’s mother stood there clapping in her blue lace dress and white gloves until Harry’s black-haired friend Bob scooped her up and waltzed her until the streetlights came on.

With the sweet peas were restored to order, Beryl felt calmed and ready for whatever was going to happen around her dining room table that afternoon. She leaned in to inhale the foxy scent of a new lily that had bloomed overnight, careful that the dusty orange pollen wouldn’t get on her forehead, and relaxed. She closed her eyes for a minute, but then stopped cold and opened them wide. With a rising sense of awareness, she realized that she had been lost in her thoughts. That the lawn beneath her cork sandal heels had still not been cut, and that there was no sign of Harry. Suddenly fully alert, she sniffed the air like a bloodhound and pivoted in the direction of a faint smell of gas, the suspect exhaust trail of Lawn Buddy. Sure enough, the whine had changed its pitch. Beryl began to walk fast.

“Harry,” she called out. She spotted him beyond the lilac trees at the edge of the yard. “Harry!” she called again, louder.

“What?” Harry called back over his shoulder.

“Harry!”

“What??” he bellowed. Beryl began to run.

“Stop, Harry, stop!”

“Stop shouting!” Harry shouted as Lawn Buddy somehow picked up speed and headed towards the garden, through the herbal bed. The sweet pungency of freshly mown basil followed, and thyme began to scent the yard, promising worse events.

“Turn it off, Harry!” Beryl cried.

“I can’t!” he yelled.

“Do something!”

As Beryl’s aria moved toward its tragic climax, one hundred stalks of lavender exploded like gunshot over Harry’s head, cascading a canopy of sweet violet shade over his bald spot.

“Remember the Empress Josephine!” she cried.

“But Lawn Buddy won’t stop!” Harry roared. “We can’t stop!” He was speeding down the garden now, chased by a plume of smoke and then Beryl who still absently held the wilted sweet pea in her hand. She could see that a botanical disaster was imminent but she had to save the Empress. For Donna’s sake.

“For God’s sake, Harry. Save the Empress!” Beryl screeched above the din of chugging Lawn Buddy and the low grinding moan of sturdy shrubbery being chopped by a relentless blade.

In a heroic move, Harry veered away from the roses. He careened for a long moment along the edge of the herb garden, missing the big oak tree, but then lost control. The stone wall came up so quickly, Harry wasn’t prepared. Lawn Buddy whinnied for a moment, and died. But it was too late in any case, far too late. The dusky pink perfume of roses settled over the air.

“Harry, honey! Are you all right?” Beryl was running fast now, and sped up when he didn’t answer her.

“Are you all right? Answer me!” Her voice rose in panic when she saw how he slumped at the wheel, the unnatural angle of his head.

“What’s wrong?” she cried. Decapitated roses lay about the suburban afternoon like discarded powder puffs on Harry’s grass that was just like a golf course. “Talk to me!”

Beryl came up behind him and laid the palm of her hand on his head gently, fearfully. She laid her cheek against his and held her fingers to his nose. God how she prayed he was breathing.

And he moved a little then, lifted his head after a long moment. Two long tears striping his sunburnt cheeks.

“B.!” he finally wailed.

“Harry, sweetheart, you okay?” Beryl held her heart with her other hand, feeling that something could still be wrong. Really wrong.

“I can smell her, B.!” he roared.

“What?” Beryl snatched her hands back, confused.

“I can smell her! I can smell the Empress!” Harry was crying openly now.

“What do you mean, Harry? Have you smacked your head?” Beryl asked, getting irritated.

“Give me your hands.”

“What are you talking about?” Beryl asked, alarmed and really irritated now. But Harry was already lifting her fingers to his nose.

“Your hands! I knew it!” he cried. “Strawberries! Right??”

Beryl stood quiet for a moment, baffled. Then she roared, “You can smell me? You can smell the Empress?!” She hugged Harry’s head to her chest with fingertips fragrant with juice from the strawberries she had been slicing.

“Kiss me!” she hollered.

Terry O’Shaughnessy is a Hudson-based writer, gardener, and kayaker who is editor of Your Local Journal newspaper and a blogger with the Montreal Gazette’s West Island Edition.

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