KIM AND CACTUSES
Kim came out of the house the moment the great orange disc of the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. The neighbourhood of Ixelles was silent; the whole town of Brussels grew silent in the past decades, during which she turned from a young girl to a young woman. Now, she walked out with a sharp knife and a big 5 litter glass jar.
All the plastic disappeared long time ago; Kim did not even remember the texture and touch of this light and once so promising material. She had to act now, not hurriedly, but still, she had an hour or so before the darkness falls. In front of her, a small-town garden spread – full of cactus plants. They came up to her knees and each had its own distinct form. Some had two-three plump heads and no limbs, some had rather many slim limbs and no heads. All of them were pale green in spring, and yellowish at the end of summer. She cut open the first one, a thick golden juice started pouring into the jar. It was important to cut open just one part of each plant every day, so that she does not damage the whole plant. And of course, be careful while moving around because of the thorns. Even careful, her bare legs and arms were full of cuts, healed and healing. Suddenly, the next-house door squeaked open and a guy came out onto his lot. Nothing was growing there, no plants, no flowers, no trees. Trees Brussels was once famous for were long gone. Gone, gone with the dryness of the past hundred years. She glanced towards the neighbour: as there were no bushes to create privacy, they lived their lives visibly in this street called Altitude 100; the highest point of Brussels, the meeting point of three different neighbourhoods. Many years ago, the expats had barely any knowledge of this area; it was far from the administration centre and not connected to metro lines. That was long time ago. Yes, Kim´s grand grandparents would remember, they once worked there. But they were long time dead. They had been building something that now appeared a sheer naïve illusion. But she was not preoccupied with the matter of illusion, she was slicing the fat skin of cactus plants collecting the juice. The heat grew less oppressive after the sun set. That was the moment when this next-door guy came often out. Sometimes silent, sometimes sighing audibly. Tonight, he started to haul towards her:
“What is the matter with you? Look at you! You are full of the cuts of these prickly dicks of plants. You tell me you still like the juice? Can you still drink it? Do you not throw up after a few gulps?”
Kim, startled, paused, stretched herself tall, not that she was very tall, and looked in his direction.
“Well, this is what grows. And the juice is full of vitamins. I barely need to eat anything else. I have a slice of corn bread and a glass of juice and that is it.”
“You are crazy stoic people in this town! The whole lot of you!”
His English was pure American. Hers was a hybrid of a European variety with many French and a few German and Dutch words. Some inhabitants still spoke pure French or Dutch. And downtown, the descendants of European eurocrats spoke a mixture of English and different Slavonic languages.
“What´s your name?” Kim asked to oblige him to become civilized.
“Hi, Richard, I am Kim.”
It worked. Aggression disappeared from his voice.
“Kim, how can you live here? How can you stay calm and endure this?” He made a circle around him. “Have you ever seen a real garden? A green garden with flowers and trees?”
“Yeah, in pictures.” Kim now continued collecting the juice, as the time was precious. A few plants further the silence of the evening was pierced by Richard´s shouting:
“This is a shitty world! A shitty town cursed by the fucking heat!” And then he roared like a lion putting all his strength into the voice. She looked in his direction. Luckily, the wired fence was high enough, and he would not be able to jump on her throat. Richard´s plump big body was clad in white cotton shorts and a loose black tank top. She could see his nipples on the sides. There was a stubble on his pale face, his hair was mutt and ruffled, his bare feet with curled toes barely touching the ground. As if his feet did not want to stand there. Kim wore flipflops, cut-off jeans and a pale blue tank top, but it all fitted and looked all right. In the hot weather, what else one could wear? She put on one of her three summer dresses when she went to run an errand.
“That is all you do here? Growing fucking cactuses, drinking fucking juice?”
“I also read and write stories. And in October, the school year begins. I teach children. There are three schools in the neighbourhood, I teach elementary in one of them. How about you?”
“I am on mission here. My company seeks opportunities, business partners. Perhaps we can even buy and bottle your juice?” He offered jokingly.
“Where are you from?”
“Does it still rain there? I mean, really rain? Is it green?”
“Yeah, it is. I can show you pictures. At least for the moment. I can´t wait till this is over and I go back. I have a house on the shore, when you come out in the morning, you step into a grass full of dew.”
“Oh, really?” Kim cut another plant. The jar was almost full. She will put it inside and then take another one. She always filled two on August and September nights.
“I am thirsty. Constantly. The water is so…” Richard cut himself silent.
“Do not say fucking expensive, just say expensive. You know, when you overuse a swear word, it loses the strength. That is what I am teaching the kids, too.”
“Ha-ha, mademoiselle Wise Teacher. Anyway, can I have a glass of your juice?
She did not respond but went inside and took a glass from the kitchen cupboard. She filled the glass from a jar sitting on the shelf in the coolest place of the house, the one that contained the juice collected a few days ago.
“Here you are,” Kim handed the glass to the guy over the fence.
He carefully moistened his lips in the liquid. “Well, not too bad. With a few cubes of ice and a shot of vodka, it would make a decent drink.”
“Thank you.” She took the complimentary part of the remark. They were both standing by the fence looking into the quietness of the evening. A dry brown slope stretched under their feet, that one used to be a lush green park called La Forêt. Beyond, the towers, many of them abandoned, stood tall among red-brick roofed town houses, half of them also long time empty.
“Thank you,” he handed her the empty glass. “On Friday, we could meet here when that harassing yellow thing disappears,” he pointed towards to horizon. “I will try to get a bottle of vodka or some other spirit and we make a cocktail. I will show you the pictures of Portland. You see, Kim? You are not obliged to live here, there are still some liveable places on this planet. And since the people are so few, you always find a spot for the new beginning.”
“Thanks for suggesting, but I am fine here. This is home. The children here need me.” She spoke calmly, her pale brown skin radiated certain coldness and calmness.
“I see, you never really get hot, right?” He chuckled, trickles of sweat running down the sides of his face and down the sides of his torso.
“I do, but I take it well, I guess.”
“Uhm. So, I won´t keep you longer. You perhaps have to pursue the juice collection.”
The next early morning, Kim woke up to Richard´s shouting again, and a strange noise, a noise she had never heard before. She stood up from a low bunker bed and hurried towards the garden door. She opened the door; the known world was bundled in a grey mist and water was pouring from the sky. Reluctantly, she stepped out, her skin was wet in a split of a second, the rain was warm and cold at the same time. She looked in the direction of the neighbour. Richard had only those white shorts on, looking completely wasted, he was dancing and hoping around and shouting:
“It is raining, it is fucking raining!” On one of his turns, he saw Kim:
“Kim, this is the rain. Have you ever seen that?”
She shook her head. No, she has not. This was the first rain after more than fifty years. She looked at the cactuses unused to getting water from above, then turned and went inside, but kept the door open, so she heard him shouting in her direction:
“We celebrate this on Friday. I am getting vodka somewhere. Even for the cost of my monthly salary.
Kim did not respond; she did not know how to.
How does one respond to the rain after fifty years?