No one ever spoke to the old man who lived there. Their parents warned them not to. He wasn’t from here, they said. You can’t trust a foreigner. So they didn’t. They walked by without a word.
Hoa and An passed his house on the way to and from school. They snuck glances at the forbidden stranger through his gate. Every afternoon, he puttered in his garden, which was the secret envy of the neighborhood, although none of the women, especially their mother, would admit it. His camellias had the glossiest leaves, his azaleas, the most vibrant pink blooms. He sculpted exotic pines to perfection. His cat would join him in the garden, basking in a sunny spot while he tended and pruned. Sometimes they saw him resting under the shade of the bamboo in an antique chair, sipping green tea. Sometimes he smiled at them. They averted their eyes and did not smile back.
* * *
Alain LeBlanc liked to see the school children coming and going as he worked. They reminded him of Sinh. Ironic to have named a son named to honor life, only to have lost that life so young, so long ago. Bad luck, Alain had told his wife, to name a child so confidently, but she insisted. After, Lan retreated into herself and never came out. The village doctor said she died of heart failure, but Alain knew it was not heart failure of the medical kind. She spent her days here in the garden, just where he sat now, just staring. He’d bring her tea. She never touched it. He hoped she could see the plum blossoms.
In the distance he heard the soft mewing, and then whispers, and slowly opened his eyes. He looked up to see a girl’s concerned face. Lan? he croaked. He was on the ground, his head gently propped on the girl’s lap, a young man handing him a glass of water. Alain remembered feeling too warm, and then dizzy, and then an all- encompassing whiteness. He took the water with a shaky hand, nodding gratefully. Are you going to be all right? the girl asked. Yes, yes, he replied. Just the sun, he waved at the sky. Thank you. The children helped him into his chair and left, closing the gate behind them, as if they’d never come. Alain stayed in his chair till the sun began to set, waiting for the evening coolness to set upon the earth and give him the strength to walk back into that quiet house.
Alain no longer dared to go back out in the hot afternoons. He gardened in the bookends of the day, taking his tea inside, his cat curled up on his lap. Not long after The Incident, little sweets, tied up daintily in cloth, started appearing at the gate right around teatime. Sometimes also a treat for the cat. Alain sipped and petted and watched vigilantly out his small window. Sometimes he almost caught them leaving their gifts, but the ghost children were always too quick.
The Gardener is my entry for LitStack's Flash Fiction Challenge #7.