On the windowsill in my bedroom sits my small garden of potted plants that I tenderly cared for and protected since a late spring’s frost threatened the shoots. Now that cold chills no longer haunt the greenery they fearlessly spurt upward and outward, knowing no limits.
I live in a kind of new age siheyuan, with the four sides of the building facing an expansive, shared courtyard. The courtyard has a communal garden, benches, a few clothing lines and a metal structure the neighbourhood children deemed fantastically play worthy, causing its original meaning to be lost. With springtime comes spring-cleaning, and lately our friendly courtyard’s been filled with elderly women drying their clothes in the soft spring air.
Unfortunately, I just was not observant of these women and their tedious washing of all linens and curtains and towels and blankets, nor of their hanging to dry of all precious cloth newly washed. So I did what I usually do: I woke up, uttered “good morning, world”, and filled my bucket with fresh water to nourish the plants I had known since they were only seedlings. Luxuriously drenching the plants they danced in the warm breeze, and I ran to fetch another pail of H2O. Humming Rolling Stone’s classic “Don’t Play with Fire” I tossed everything onto the plants only to hear a brutal, hair-raising scream.
The babcia of our siheyuan, a woman of immeasurable years with a command of human interaction one can only hope to attain, stood tersely, mouth and arms open wide three floors below me. Her scream’s echo bounced around the courtyard, causing some windows to cautiously open a little so that the people of our building’s desire for excitement could be quenched. Around one hundred windows either closed very quickly or opened enthusiastically. Of course, being one of the curious neighbours, I lept to my windowsill, stuck my neck out the window, and looked down, only to see the shaking arm of a babcia pointing directly at me.
„Mieszkam tu. Popatrz co narobiłaś. To także mój dom a ty zachowujesz się jakbyś była tu jedyna. Popatrz: wszystko zniszczone. Ty głupia, głupia dziewczyno. Z takim zachowaniem nie zostaniesz tu długo. Strzeż się, zginiesz za to. To miejsce jest zbyt małe dla nas dwóch.”
Roughly translated to something like:
I live here. Look at this. Look at what you’ve done. I live here too, and you think are the only one who lives here. Look at this: Everything is ruined. You stupid, stupid girl. You will not live for long with behaviour like this. Beware, death shall come on swift wings, if I live here you will not. This place is not big enough for the two of us.
Unable to turn away from the curse coursing from the lips of our feminine comradee, all those who earlier had shut their windows to mind their own business, had opened them once more. Her voice laced with a death curse soared into my ears. Even though she stood three floors below my windowsill I cowered beneath her words. Terrified and ashamed, I said nothing. As the last of the curse’s echoes faded away, I slithered from the plants I no longer felt proud to have raised.
The sun slipped behind a cloud, tempting a thought of “this may be correlated to the terrorized curse”. I heard the courtyard door slam shut, and the neighbours chattering slowly calmed. Slinking back to the window like a guilty dog with a tail tucked between the legs I looked at the destruction caused by my zealous watering.
Black mud stained the intricately, century old lace table covering. The once near reflective white linens were unrecognizable from the soil that rained down only minutes earlier. Her fabrics no longer beautiful, hung soggy, wet, mud-streaked: a scandal the entire community could discuss. With horrified eyes I looked at what I had done, only for the very large grandson of the cloth’s owner to come out, and point at me in the window. A man of equally powerful stature to his grandmother pointed, and from his index finger he sprayed feelings of overwhelming guilt and disgrace.
Perhaps what I had done could be seen as a careless mistake, and of course it was not intentional, but the babcią had a point: to live with respect to others within a community, and especially in a shared space, it is irreprehensible to act without thought of how one’s actions may impact the greater whole.
So, with this thought passing through my now-cursed-with-a-powerful-babcia-death-threat head I tossed my trench coat on over my nightgown, grabbed my purse, and zoomed down the tiled staircase and hurled myself down the street into the nearest flower shop. While searching for the cheeriest blossoms offered in the shop I wrote out the apology note in my head. Settling upon the brightest damn yellow flowers you could ever imagine I ran to the courtyard. Ripping pages from my journal I began the large sprawl of my sincerest of regrets.
The note covered everything from my wanting to wash her cloths until the stains disappeared to throwing my plants out, to never letting such a thing happen in a place we both call home. This experience caused nerve damage, and that compelled me to try correcting the situation for three reasons. I was struck alive by a fear that perhaps this was not the only time I had acted without regard to others; leaving another, like this babcia, shocked and upset by the lack of respect shown. And what if she hadn’t screamed and cursed me? My lack of awareness could have potentially caused pain and I would be none the wiser. Her reaction to me forced a reminder of the need to recall each person of our siheyuan that none of us live alone; we share the ground, we share the earth, we share a home, and it is absolutely unacceptable to make someone feel disrespected in any environment, unintentional or intentionally. And lastly, a death curse is nothing to chuckle at, especially when being screamed at you directly from the mouth of an ancient being.
And with this torrential downpour of sorrows and regrets written upon torn journal papers, I pulled open the entrance to their wing of the building, where the babcia’s grandson was just exiting. He boomed, “CO ROBISZ, TERAZ?” what are you doing, now? And with averted eyes I handed him the note and bouquet of flowers. He squinted at it, and asked why. I replied “because” and sprinted to my flat.
The rest of the day, silence in the courtyard the entire rest of the day. At some point someone, either the babcia or the grandson, removed the soiled cloths. I spent the day considering how often one may be treated unfairly and not say anything, only to learn ill treatment was the least of anyone’s intent; or how it is of the utmost importance to speak out in times of injustice, and to not belittle an experience, even if you are the only one who seems to care, because even if it matters to one person, it still matters.
The next morning I woke up, and took my plants from the windowsill and placed them in the bathtub, where they were watered and leaked. When returning the plants to the sill, I noticed the yellow bouquet of flowers suspended, eye level to my bedroom window view by a knotted rope coming from my neighbour’s window. Unsure if this was a continuation of some kind of threat or a drying of the flowers I decided to keep my plants inside for the day. Maybe throw them out. Who needs plant, I thought, what a dumb idea, I thought. I was not searching for any more attention to be drawn to my already notorious bedroom windowsill.
After spending the day inside working, not at all cowering from the noose of flowers outside my flat, which grew more menacing as wind picked up and swung the petals to the ground where they stayed limp, stationary, and discoloured. I ventured to check the mailbox at the entrance of our apartment complex. Along the way I heard someone shout, “Cześć!” The angry boom in the grandson’s voice from earlier in the day had disappeared, making his tone nearly unrecognizable. He told me his grandmother would like to have me for tea, and said, “dzięki,” thanks, before departing to the streets outside our own world comprised within this courtyard.