Open 2020, Short Stories - Eduard Schmidt-Zorner


Garden of Eden in the Banlieue

By Eduard Schmidt-Zorner  


People who arrive at airport Charles de Gaulle to make the shortest way to the centre of Paris are forced through a quarter with the multi-storey apartment blocks of a tenement city.


Signposts, leaning sideways, and damaged advertising columns cast a surrealistic shadow on the streets which are deserted in the early morning. The quarter exhales despair, hopelessness and dilapidation.


Slowly, a few dots of colour appear, the costumes of some of the inhabitants, a mixture of the former French colonies: North Africa, Sahara, East Coast of Africa. Some leave the apartment blocks to take the metro or the bus, to go to the nearby market, or to kill time.


Younes spends his day in a small apartment in the 7th floor of one of the many multi-storey buildings from which the paint flakes off. The former white facades resemble a mouldy grey-white abstract painting, with dark patches, the same dark patches which occupy his brain.


Satellite dishes grow like mushrooms on the outer walls as if they were a breeding ground for fungi.


He is missing something, something important. There is a dark twisting mass inside his skull and what he needed to know is hiding within.


The sky is also grey, but a metallic grey, as if a dome of steel. Younes is exposed to a long afternoon, a kind of dying in slow motion, an immovable boredom, or worse, an abyss of futility.


Being part of the seventy percent unemployment in this area, without hope, he sits on his tiny narrow balcony, at a likewise tiny unstable table. On the wall a fainted picture of the Kasbah of Algiers.


He remembers the garden of his grandparents in Birkhadem where he grew up after his parents died. He remembered the orange and fig tree and the many flowers and herbs his grandmother planted in the small garden behind a wall which separated the small idyll from the street. When this picture comes up deep inside him he imagines smelling the mint which grew in a terracotta pot on the window sill.


He misses nature. The bit of nature, outside the building, consists of solidified mud, plowed by car tires into parallel miniature mountain chains, on which here and there grow a few blades of grass. Moss, nature’s compromise, peeks between the gaps of the concrete slabs pointing the way to entry doors, loosely swinging in their hinges, their broken glazing sprayed with graffiti.


He hears the garbage collecting trucks in the distance, grabs a waste bag and walks down the staircase. The lift is not working, never worked, as long as he could remember.

When he opens the bin, the stench is awful. Maybe one of the tenants had put the guts of a disembowelled fish into the bin.


The waste collectors are proud to be part of a functioning municipal machine. He hears them chatting cheerfully about their weekend in the countryside, nice places without having to buy train tickets or queue up in airports or to be condemned to stay in an environment with dying organisms, in a trap, or like animals which would have long since escaped.

An idea shifts the darkness in his head: Why not create an oasis on his balcony to have a dream garden. A retreat?


Having no money to buy extravagant plants and flowerpots he lets this idea fade away, fade into sadness which overpowers his hunger on this gloomy day.


He decides to buy a salad in the supermarket. Next to the entrance he sees a few empty plastic containers and two buckets and asks one of the employees whether he can take them. “Fiche -moi la paix” the man shouts: “Leave me in peace and take what you want.”


He remembers that yesterday an excavator dug a trench for a pipe nearby and left a heap of soil. He fills the bucket and drags the treasures up to his flat. A worm winds itself to the top of the soil. A good sign of nature. He gives the worm the name of a girl; Bashir, good omen.


“Flowers? Seeds?” “Where to get those germinating hopes of ever recurring creation? He washes his hands.


There is a small patch, the remnant of a park at the end of the street, which was arranged when the quarter was built.


He walks slowly down the street with a plastic bag in his hands, greets a few people from the vicinity, among them a poet, who works as a guard in Centre Pompidou. His long beard gives him a pathetic appearance. Younes envies him his job.


His search for traces which nature left in this hopeless urban desert sharpens his awareness of his surroundings. A dandelion grows in an awkward place and he digs it out of the crevice of a wall with his fingers. A bit of soil is attached to the root.


The small green patch is still there. An old woman sits on a ramshackle bench. Not a lot of greenery remained. The trees are vandalised. But there is a bush which had shed his petals and bears a rich amount of seeds, which he gathers into his plastic bag.


The old woman asks him why he is doing it. “I want to grow a garden” he says. The woman shakes her head. With a trembling hand she points to some bins opposite. “They threw their garden into the rubbish”, she says. Younes walks over to the other side. There are some flower pots with yellow and red climbers. He is delighted and shouts “SHUKRAN” (thank you) over to the old woman, who raises her hand as response.


On his return he looks up the building. The only colour are a few pants on a line and a scarf drying in the sun.


Walking up the stairs he hears the Breton in the second floor shouting obscenities and banging his doors. On the fifth floor, Raï music blares out of an apartment and when he passes, the door next to it opens and a man, his head lowered, leaves. A naked woman closes the door hastily. PrincianeAssamoua from Ivory Coast is making her living.


The worm, Bashir is still on top of the soil in the container. He gives her a home in a corner under a dry leaf. The former tenant has left a few brackets that hold the oblong containers and he puts the rest of the boxes and the bucket on the balcony floor where the sun can reach them. A bag of peat, which he inherited from the former tenant as well and which he was about to throw away, fills them.


The climbers are arranged at the balcony wall and he distributes the seeds equally over the soil in the plastic container and bucket and waters them.


Perhaps Aya would come back to him and they could sit on the balcony and hold hands


Paris is a town for the loving, but you need the décor for it, which makes the absence of love painfully aware and unbearable.


Eduard Schmidt-Zorner is a translator and writer of poetry, haibun, haiku and short stories. He writes haibun, tanka, haiku and poetry in four languages: English, French, Spanish and German and holds workshops on Japanese and Chinese style poetry and prose. Member of four writer groups in Ireland and lives in County Kerry, Ireland, for more than 25 years and is an Irish citizen, born in Germany. Published in 71 anthologies, literary journals and broadsheets in UK, Ireland, Canada and USA.


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