WHEN I was very little, I lived among the Mennonites and I was exceedingly modest. With a buttercup or a violet in my hand, I would stand, wide-eyed, and think, ‘When I am big, I will own a flower field; it shall be my very own!’
From my Hollywood balcony I could look through the palm trees and see Japanese gardeners silently working in the rose field at dusk. Sometimes I could smell the leaf mould subtly mingled with a breath of perfume. Little brown men moved whirling sprinklers about and, stooping in the pathways, did mysterious things to earth and plant.
Waking in the rosy dawn to greet the sun, I would sniff the sweet, keen air and quickly dress, that I might have an hour to walk in the cool brown aisles and behold the glory of the roses. There were several vacant lots in this heart of a Hollywood street, which had been rented — as most of the other vacant lots had been — by the thrifty Japanese, for flower-raising. Quick-growing, quick-selling sweet peas, in long, high-trellised rows of mauve and gold, rose and blue, glorified most of the lots, but this acre of land was covered with roses.
I never knew what they raised them for. I never saw anyone come to the field except one or two gardeners, and I am sure the flowers were never picked. The first rows, nearest the street, were dwarf plants, the dead-white roses always cool-looking, not very fragrant, smelling much like the earth. Next came rows of faintly pink roses — open-faced, flat blossoms with a hundred or more crinkly petals, like rosettes of taffeta. There were thick rows of rich La France, the stately Paul Neyron and the gracious Madame Du Barry, and proud, distinctive roses I had never known. There were clouds of dusky Jacqueminots of the texture of silk velvet, with an overwhelming luxury of perfume that one fairly drank as he inhaled. On one side of the field grew a great bush fully six feet high and at least thirty feet in circumference, upon which bloomed hundreds of creamy tea roses.
But at the end of the lot, almost hidden, was the mystery of the place. Here bloomed roses great as large orchids, formed almost like orchids — roses with six or seven great curled petals. Some were of apricot shades, with deep, golden hearts and heavy-burdened stamens. There were lavender-pink shades with orange chenille hearts, petals waxy as orange blossoms and as drunkenly sweet. These gorgeously exotic flowers had thick, brittle, thornless stems and bright-green, sharp-edged leaves.
On my way to the studio, I used to step from the street to the fragrant paths and slowly walk from plant to plant. I would drop to my knees and touch gently with my lips their velvety blooms, drinking in a bit of their fragrant breath. By way of service, I picked off a brown leaf when I could find one; but there were almost no withered leaves in this field of a thousand roses. Walking softly about, I would dream I was in a Rose Heaven, and that it was all, all my own. I loved each lovely plant with a passionate tenderness.
Sometimes I asked one of the dreamers from the studio to come with me and see my rose field, but I never picked a flower or allowed another so to trespass.
One morning, as I sat on my heels with hands folded in my lap, in an ecstasy of delight before some special beauty, a Japanese gardener popped up before my very eyes and, with rapid little apologetic salaams, said, ‘Peek wan! Peek wan!’
I was startled and felt like a guilty child. I gasped, ‘I have never picked any — any — any!’ shaking my head from side to side and throwing my arms wide, showing empty palms, in an expansive gesture.
Again he bent rapidly in the middle, and repeated urgently, ‘Peek wan! Peck wan!’
I did pick one quickly, the first one my hand fell to, saying, ‘I thank you — thank you very, very much, sir!’ And I may have bowed somewhat as he did, for I never could talk to the Japanese without unconsciously returning their little salaams; and then I hastened away. I had never before seen anyone in the field in the morning, and at night I had waited until I was sure the gardeners had left before I went a-walking there.
For several days I stayed away; and then, lured by a fragrant wind, I timidly stepped again into the cool, fragrant paths, but I was always thinking that in some unknowable way little Japanese gardeners might be concealed behind the smallest bushes.
One afternoon a great limousine stopped before my house. When I went to the door, a gracious Japanese gentleman bowed deferentially before me, and in the gentlest of voices asked: ‘Are you the lady who walks in the roses?’
I felt the blood rush to my brow. This gentle-voiced person suspected me of trampling on his lovely flowers! I swallowed and said, ‘Yes, sir; but I did not pick any. I only — ‘ He raised a hand and said, ‘No, no. But you are the lady who goes there?’
‘I often do go there, sir, but I have never — ‘
Again he gently interrupted me, saying, ‘ No, no. Pardon, pardon, madame, but you are the lady. I have come to tell you that the roses — they are all yours.’
I looked at him in speechless amazement . Mine! ‘ Why — ‘
‘I came to tell you,’ he gently insisted, ‘that we go now, and the roses — they are all yours, to pick, to smell, to do with as you like, madame. Good-bye!’ He beamed upon me.
I could scarcely believe it. I almost let him go without a word.
‘Oh, but, sir, I — I thank you.’
He graciously bent his head and smiled. ‘You are most, most welcome. Good day and good-bye.’
I did not know whether to run across the street and announce from the centre of the rose field to the listening universe that it was all, all mine, or to close the door and weep a thousand thousand tears.
There were no more little brown gardeners in the dusk, or even in the early dawn. The hose and even the water pipes disappeared. But the field was well soaked and the garden had not yet reached the zenith of blooming. I picked hundreds of long-stemmed roses and filled my sunny rooms; I carried bushel-basket bundles of precious rose-treasure to the studios; but, for all my picking, never did my field appear to have lost one flower. It reminded me of the Scriptural verse: ‘Prove me now . . . if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.’
I began to carry water early in the mornings and through the dusk. I cut countless dozens of perfect buds from the tea-rose bush, but always it was full of blooms. Timidly I cut the orchid roses, one by one, and placed them in fitting vases in my cool rooms. They seemed to exhale a mystic aura, before which my spirit did reverent homage. They were the mystery of the rose field. When they had come into perfect bloom, the work was finished.
Strange new neighbors stood on front lawns with hose or rake in hand, faces ever turned toward me with puckered brows of amazement for my coming and going. With flushed cheeks, I tried to pretend I did n’t notice.
Gradually the dark, damp paths faded to dry fawn dust, but still the hardy plants sent forth precious buds. Then, one night, hurrying home from the studio, I found that excavation had begun in the field, and every plant had perished as if it had been but a Jimson weed. But that fair garden shall bloom forever in my heart. Its perfume pervades my very soul. You see, my childish dream came true. When I grew big, I did own a flower field. It was all my very own!