:: Article

The Printer of Gardens

By Jessica Sequeira.

Standing Nude with Garden Background, Amadeo Modigliani, 1913

 

When I saw her first, she looked just like a statue, holding a spade above the dark soil of her daughter’s garden. Seeing her made me feel an intense awareness of what I knew a little bit, and what I didn’t know at all. The body given to me was this one, not that. Later I would seek her out, then she would tell me a few of the stories hidden in her mute figure.

After her husband died, she took over the press openly, meaning that her name went on the front door. People started to send wedding card and religious pamphlet jobs her way, since besides knowing all the things about printing that she’d learnt over a long stretch, working elbow to elbow with her husband, she’d also started to design her own posters and imprints. Coloured inks from abroad, new kinds of paper, fancy lettering cut in new shapes—word of her inventions got round the village.

One day a woman knocked on her door. She’d come all this way from Scotland, come to talk about—no stutter when she said it—preventative methods. She wasn’t stupid. She knew that visitors like this foreign lady were wise to strategy, and knew how to pick out the lone figure in town rather than knock on the doors of families. Still, she didn’t shut her door. She gave the woman tea and some salty snacks, and directions to the bus station. She didn’t believe in rudeness to strangers. After the Scottish lady left, the mirror showed what words hadn’t. Her cheeks were bright red.

She didn’t take the job, at first. The request had been to work from a sketch: a harried-looking mother labelled ‘Mother India’ with several bawling babies labelled ‘poverty, literacy, health, unemployment, housing’. Later she would see more extreme versions of the same posters with population bombs or mothers’ stomachs. This one was innocuous, as far as it went. She knew, though, that the village wouldn’t care for it. She knew that their thoughts were for themselves, not the nation. She knew that babies were seen as a good thing, a sign of flourishing and prosperity.

The day after the woman visited, her son invited her for lunch at a restaurant in town. This was unusual. He ordered a salty lassi and chicken and rice, and she ordered the same, and wondered what he was going to ask of her. He was a doctor but didn’t seem to be very successful, as everyone thought that doctors should be. His office was small and dirty, and he was always short of money. Someone told her that he beat his wife, and she tried to shut her ears to it. They had six children. The reason for the invitation to the restaurant was not long in coming. ‘My wife is with child,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘I will need some cash to pay for the food and clothes. With Pa gone now I don’t see what you need the money for.’

In fact she’d been planning to use the money on some special new inks from England, and possibly a replacement of older machine parts. She said this to her son, and he got angry. ‘Always prioritising your own self! Others would be ashamed of having a mother so selfish.’ Quietly she finished her meal, and at the end of it reached into her purse and handed him a few thousand rupees. She’d been carrying them in expectation of this request.

When she got home, she sat down and drew up a new list of accounts. She would need some more money if these payments were going to continue, as she assumed they would. Her son never asked just once. She thought then of the Scottish woman. It wasn’t as if she had to go pasting up posters on telephone poles or anything. All she had to do was make the design. She did so, in two-toned inks—sober black and pale green—and delivered the sheets. She was paid a reasonable sum, not too little, not too much, slightly more than her usual jobs.

The next morning, who knows how, the posters were everywhere around town. Of course people knew who’d done the job. She was the only one capable of it. The other printers did jobs quickly and cheaply but didn’t have this attention to the evenness of the impression, the cuts of the letters. She hadn’t tried to hide her hand, since she knew that they’d know, but it still surprised her when, even before she’d had breakfast, she received the first call. It was her daughter-in-law. ‘Oh what have you done, my poor child will come into this world of sin…’ The rest was drowned out in sobs.  The second call was her son. He was shouting all kinds of incoherencies, and after a while holding her phone away from her ear, she hung up.

Aunts and uncles and second cousins, not satisfied with the convenience of the telephone, showed up on the doorstep. So did her son and his wife, eventually. She heard all kinds of talks, ‘how could you’ talks, and ‘what demon possessed you’ talks, and ‘how selfish you are’ talks, and ‘what shame will fall upon our family’ talks. They were all deeply shocked, of course, and stopped just short of saying ‘how could you support the killing of babies’. Then they all left and she was alone at home, with the press.

The sun came in through the window. She saw the dust dance in it, and she felt the agitation within her subside, and she was not sorry. The trouble went deeper than she’d expected. Oh yes, she’d had pressure to go. Many people no longer wanted her there. Her own Catholic family said ‘If your husband were here…’ and it’s true that he would never have allowed this in life. She would never have thought of doing something like this when he was alive either, but after his death she had felt a kind of euphoria.

Sometimes she lost track of the hours. Along with the occasional work for the press that still trickled in, not much, to fill the time she took to gardening. Big colourful things took root eagerly in the tropical air and moist soil, bursting crazily into existence like fireworks.

She had helped to create a population of pamphlets, not babies. With me, later, she could laugh about it. Over the years she’d had time to think of retorts too: ‘Making babies isn’t like making copies, you know. You’re not just duplicating something, you’re bringing something new into the world, with its own needs and wishes. That’s something that should be thought about more carefully, don’t you agree?’ She repeated this so often to herself that eventually she came to believe it.

Copying didn’t scare her, but bringing entirely new versions into the world: only the gods should do that. Just like the rest of the village, she really didn’t care about those capital-letter Threats on the poster, or even about the explosion of Population, the adding of more units. What scared her was the idea of making newness, adding an original person to the world. She had done this with her daughter and son, but she didn’t want to do so ever again. She wasn’t sure that the results had come out entirely well. She loved them, but she admitted that her son was stingy and narrow-minded, and that her daughter, who’d gone abroad ages before, had cut herself away heartlessly from the community where she’d been born and had a failed marriage now to boot.

Living alone, she raked over these thoughts in her head, and came to believe that her attempts at invention had been a challenge to the gods. She would no longer add anything, but only duplicate.

Words like rebel and conservative didn’t fit this woman, and I listened to her story without trying to put her into a category. She lasted for a year in that village, but the ostracism became very lonely for her. This is why her daughter’s repeated invitations to come abroad, make a life with her, help her to survive her own loneliness, give her a hand at home while she worked at the conservatory, began to wear her down. She made the move, boarding an airplane for the first time in her life.

Once in the strange land, she felt no need to use the printing press anymore. It was expensive to buy a new one and start everything from scratch, but more importantly than that, it also seemed a thing from the past, no longer part of herself. She left the old press in the hands of a young man who had been eyeing it for some time, looking to use it as part of his newspaper business.

In her new home, she decided to turn her hand to flowers and plants, just as before. But now there were no experiments with palm fronds or bright bulbs or elephantine leaves. She would help her daughter to make a beautiful garden, but she would not make anything new. She would copy gardens, find gardens that she liked and replicate them without originality. This is how I found her that morning, counting the number of roses to make sure she matched that in the garden of the King of Sweden, and the number of stargazer lilies to equal those at the temple of a Korean emperor.

Of course her impulses ended in failure. Some things died, barren in the new soil. Other things grew despite her controlling impulses, grew and crossbred and developed in odd patterns and adapted to the local climate in a way that engendered new and unexpected shapes and colours. She asked herself if she’d been wrong, if the gods were punishing her as her family had said they would. ‘No,’ her daughter had said to her firmly. Their relationship, so tense when Chaya was young, had mellowed out into occasional annoyance mixed with stronger love. Once she’d tried to make mother change her mind, but now she humoured her, and took her ideas seriously. ‘I think that copying is about intention. It means to imitate style or behaviour. If something accidentally changes in the process, you are not responsible for it.’

Inwardly, her mother rejoiced. This not only dissolved her problem—it was okay if more roses grew here than in Sweden, and the lilies were a more vivid pink than the ones in Korea—but made her understand why the people in her village had irritated her so much.

‘They never intended to make new people,’ she marveled. ‘They just popped them out, six or seven, not thinking about it too much, slaves to tradition and their bodies.’

Her daughter laughed. She liked when her mother’s words had a bit of zing. She’d inherited this herself.

Intention. Her mother kept talking. This was their error—not creating original people, but creating them without being aware of the enormity of what they were doing. Intention. Perhaps one could create new things, yes, but one had to be conscious of it. She had been wrong. Printing was about copying, but it was also about bringing new ideas into the world, made with intention. Intention. Perhaps copying with intention could also involve creating.

She was glad. In the most secret place of her heart, its innermost depths, she’d missed drawing. Now she would use her knack for the pen to invent new arrangements of flowers and plants, to brighten up her the vast yard of her musical daughter, so much like her. She laughed and went to plant another rose, one more rose than the number of roses in the garden of the king of Sweden.

When her daughter first described this remarkable woman to me, she called her ‘The Printer of Gardens’.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from California, currently living in Santiago de Chile. Her works include the novel A Furious Oyster, the collection of stories Rhombus and Oval, and the collection of essays Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age. Her translations into English include Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World, Adolfo Couve’s When I Think of My Missing Head, Sara Gallardo’s Land of Smoke, Maurice Level’s The Gates of Hell, Hilda Mundy’s Pyrotechnics and Teresa Wilms Montt’s In the Stillness of Marble.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 26th, 2019.