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July 18, 2008


Noodling on the news — V is for Versailles

On the third planet from the sun, the following appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 13:

The green thumbs were covered with brown dirt Saturday at San Francisco’s Civic Center when 150 people who like to eat their vegetables planted an updated version of a World War II victory garden.

Elsewhere, in a parallel universe, a young queen was just finishing her morning toilette. She absent-mindedly scratched her head and removed two or three lice before picking up the sleekly pomaded wig that was her trademark. She smoothed a few stray wisps of  hair and settled it on her head. A quick glance in the mirror, a few minor adjustments, and she was ready to begin the day.

She turned to address the assembled courtiers.

“I’m bored. Let’s find something new to do today. What shall we do?”

Her words dropped into a deep and uncomfortable silence, as each of the assembled guests held back, hoping that someone else would throw out the first suggestion, which was almost always rejected.

“Well,” she repeated, “what shall we do today?”

Her eyebrows lifted into high arches as she looked around the room. A balding soldier sat in one corner, examining his fingernails. A young, well-dressed lady-in-waiting coughed gently into her handkerchief.

“Mr. Orr,” the queen said sharply. “Do you have a plan?”

The gentleman in question rose to his feet and bowed gracefully.

“I was thinking, Your Majesty, that we might arrange a painting party and decorate some of the apartments being constructed for the deserving poor. Psychologists have discovered that bright, cheerful surroundings are most effective in turning wayward paupers away from the streets.”

The queen pouted. “Not poor people again! Mr. Orr, we did that last week!”

Orr sidled toward the overstuffed cushion he had just vacated. His face was the color of a ripe eggplant.

“Well?” The queen snapped her fingers. “Are you all sleeping? Lady Kaye, what are your thoughts?”

A lean, dark-haired woman curtseyed deeply, her elbows jutting out at right angles above her waist as she endeavored to keep her balance.

“My lady,” she stammered, “perhaps you would care to organize a parade. It’s been many months since the last one” — she caught herself and gulped loudly — “and I’m sure the public has forgotten how you hid the route at the last minute. Today is too windy to carry torches, but a procession of handsome athletes carrying baseball bats would surely stir the populace.”

The queen drew herself up to her full height and pigeoned out her bosom.

“How dare you mention the last parade! Even the sight of the dowager queen showing off her toothpick legs in running shorts could not pacify those disappointed spectators.”

“Come, come,” she went on. “I will not sit idly today. We must do something, something visible, so that our loyal subjects will not forget our presence.”

At that very moment, the door opened and an old woman burst into the room. She wore a broad hat and a flowing magician’s cloak. Brandishing a rough staff half again as tall as she was, she swept up to the dais where the queen stood.

“Your majesty.”

The queen responded. “Biddy Babbling Brook.”

The newcomer pointed the leafy tip of her staff toward the queen and crumpled into a heap at her feet. Two pages rushed to her side and helped her rise.

“Your Majesty,” the old woman began again. “I have come to ask for your assistance in a grave matter facing our country. In this time of economic turmoil, many citizens go to bed hungry. I beseech you to follow the example of your ancestors and set aside a little plot of land to grow food that will ease their hardship.”

“I grow food? The queen had a shocked look on her face. “Would that involve digging in the dirt?”

“Only symbolically, my lady. You would have at your disposal a whole army of gardeners willing to get dirt under their fingernails for the good of the country. All you need to do is turn over the first shovelful of soil, using, of course, a dainty silver trowel especially designed to fit your tiny hands.”

The old woman stared at the queen, who was beginning to waver.

“Farms are messy, ugly places, crawling with unpleasant creatures and laid out in boring straight lines, Biddy Brook. I would not want to look at that every day.”

“May I suggest, Your Majesty, that you employ your finest landscape architects to create a new design. There is no requirement that gardens be arranged in close, parallel rows. I’m sure they could devise something else — a web of circles, perhaps.”

“But gardens take a long time to mature. I could not stand to wait. And I would find it distasteful to stare at bare dirt while the seeds were sprouting.”

“Then command that only large seedlings be planted. An instant garden is an exceedingly happy concept.”

The queen clapped her hands

“I will do it. Direct my stewards to begin preparations in the park just outside my window. And surround it with a sturdy fence so that thieving passersby cannot invade the space.” She thought a minute. “A sturdy fence, but a pretty one.”

The old woman bowed.

“I’ll deliver your orders immediately. But I do think, ma’am, that you might dispense with the fence entirely, in favor of a low, more welcoming wall. You could still control access by a few strategically placed gates. With a veggie patrol at night, that should suffice.”

The queen opened her arms wide.

“I can see it now,” she said, “hills of beans and corn and squash, surrounded by happy singing children. Soon all the world will know that I am truly the Green Queen.”

The courtiers bowed and murmured, “The Green Queen!”

The old woman slipped out the door. Once in the hall, she grinned and raised a triumphant fist. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” she said, “and a hundred gardens prosper.”

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Friday.

       — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008