The Big Gardens

 The Big Gardens

By Geraldine De Goeas, California

The tall iron gates stood wide open in welcome. Nadine read the large overhead sign. The Botanical Gardens. She grinned. No one in Guyana called it that. It was ‘The Big Gardens,’ simply because it was big, and also to differentiate it from the Promenade Gardens, known as ‘The Small Gardens’.

Towering palm trees lined the main walkway. The sweet scent of Frangipani filled the air.

“Which way to the manatee pond, Brother?” Nadine asked.

“Stop calling me Brother.” Nadine’s older brother Julio wagged his finger at her. Then he said, “We’ll go see the flowers first, check out the band and…”

Nadine sucked her teeth. “I came to feed the manatees. I don’t want to see flowers or listen to any old band.”

“Too bad,” Julio retorted. “The manatees won’t come to eat until it’s cooler. I’ll buy you a shave-ice and…”

“So why bring me now?” Nadine interrupted, stamping her foot.

“Because Mummy told me to. But we can go home,” Julio threatened.

Nadine’s lips formed a tight line. I’m not going home, she thought. What I came for is right here. She thought back to the first time she saw the manatees. How she found them ‘So awesome.’ “God’s gentle giants,” her mummy had called them. Nadine pictured them moving, ever so slowly, in the water. No splashing or thrashing; making hardly a ripple on the water’s surface. She remembered their small round eyes that seemed to twinkle as they spotted the eager crowd, offering all that delicious grass. No, Nadine would not be going home. Now that her mother had finally declared her old enough, Nadine was here to feed a manatee, and nothing would stop her.

“I’ll have a pineapple shave-ice,” she muttered grudgingly.

The sweet pineapple juice poured over crushed ice did little to change Nadine’s disappointment. She lagged behind Julio, ignoring the circles of delicate roses, colorful zinnias, and bright yellow marigolds that surrounded her. She shuffled along the dirt path, angrily kicking up dust with the tip of her yachting shoes.

Suddenly, a black bee zipped past Nadine’s nose. Nadine’s head snapped back instantly, but her eyes followed the bee cautiously. She saw it circle, then zoom, into the dark center of a large golden sunflower. As she watched, Nadine’s eyes grew wide and round like matching silver dollars. “Awesome,” she whispered.

“You coming?” shouted Julio.

Nadine ran to her brother. “Oh, Brother!” she exclaimed. “I saw a bee with its head shoved deep into a flower sucking up nectar, just the way my teacher said,” she blurted out excitedly. “Awesome.”

“Hey, I’ll show you something really awesome,” was Julio’s reply. Leading Nadine away from the flower beds, across a metal footbridge that twanged loudly with every footstep, Julio guided her to the far end of the gently running stream they had just crossed.

Huge round leaves, like giant plates, lay on the water’s surface. Pure white flowers, big as water-coconuts, with pointed oval petals, sat between the leaves, gleaming like jewels in the brilliant sunshine. Nadine gasped. Her mouth formed a perfect “O.”

“Victoria lilies,” Julio explained. “Guyana’s special flower. Named after a queen.”

“Oh, Brother, this is double awesome. God sure makes beautiful things.”

And as if in agreement, music filled the air. Recognizing a folksong she knew, Nadine sang aloud, “There’s a brown girl in the ring…”

Julio grabbed his sister’s hand. “Let’s go!” he yelled. And with the wind whistling in their ears, they ran toward the music. Soon, the bright red dome of the bandstand loomed before them. Groups of people dotted the surrounding grassy area; some singing like Nadine to the tune the bandsmen, in their crisp navy uniforms and shiny silver buttons were playing, “She likes sugar, and I like plums.”

Julio threw himself on the lawn and pulled Nadine down with him.

Soon, Nadine’s shoulders were rocking and her body swaying as she sang along with the spectators. “This is fun, Brother. Will you bring me again?”

“Only if you stop calling me Brother.”

Nadine’s forehead wrinkled into a frown. She loved Julio. He was her brother. Why shouldn’t she say so? She’d be happy if he called her Sister.

“Now to the manatee pond.”

Delighted at Julio’s words, Nadine immediately forgot her brother’s threat and sprang up to follow him.

Noisy children, protective parents, and many teenagers stood or sat by the water’s edge. Brother and sister searched for clumps of clean, young grass, then squatted by the water and waited.

The late afternoon sun peeking between the over-hanging Poinciana trees made dancing shadows on the still water.

“Here they come,” someone whispered. Nadine’s eyes lit up. Her heart pounded with excitement. The crown of a manatee’s wrinkled head appeared inches above the water. Then another, and another. As the mammals moved closer, people waved their fists of clutched grass hoping to attract a manatee’s attention.

“The grass, Daddy, hurry!”

At Nadine’s right, a boy about her age sat, both legs in braces, leaning sideways straining to find his father.

In seconds, a manatee’s head popped up out of the water, close to Nadine and the boy. It’s thick round lips opened wide; the two halves of it’s upper lip jiggled as if signaling to be fed.

“Daddy, Daddy.”

Nadine saw the boy’s lips tremble. She saw tears flood his eyes. She knew that feeling. She remembered her anger and her tears whenever her mommy had said, “Not until you’re older.”

Nadine eyed the manatee’s jiggling lips. So close. Quickly she extended her arm and offered her fist-full of grass. “Here take this,” she said to the boy.

“But Nadine…” Julio began.

“It’s okay,” Nadine said. “You’ll bring me another day, right Brother?”

Julio’s eyes misted up. He hugged his sister and nodded, “I promise.”

By Geraldine De Goeas, California. She adds: “I was born and educated in what was then British Guyana. These botanical gardens were my playground of choice growing up.”