The Night Gardeners: A Short Story
The travelers arrived beneath the covers of darkness in the strange and other-worldly place. The glow from a nearly-full moon spilled across the treetops, silhouetting the scrambled chaos of gnarled branches, twisting trunks and dense undergrowth that surrounded them below. Long ago, it was said, a garden of resplendent beauty had flourished here, with sprawling green lawns, golden elms and apricot scented blooms that blossomed for days on end. But the passage of time had not been kind and the cold and the dry had driven its many admirers away from the flowering borders. It had been years since the place had felt the tender hand of a gardener or known the happy face of an inquisitive visitor. In the absence of their admiration, the place had grown wild, wicked, ugly. Jagged thorns sprouted from the branches of trees and tall weeds towered above the shrubs, enveloping them within. Thistles and burs grew thick where lush clover once had been.
Disturbing tales of the garden and its descent into ruin were whispered about town. Stories of men, driven mad with desperation for the scent of just one rose, their flesh flayed and torn by the garden’s impenetrable razor edges when they’d tried to sneak in unawares. Women who returned from the garden’s edge only to escape in the night with the promised lover of another. And worst of all, tales of those who went to the garden, never to return again. The townsfolk felt forced to act, arriving with weapons, poisons, fire. They were intent on upheaving the old garden from the earth and burning its branches to the ground. But they soon found their blades were too blunt, their poisons too weak and the flames merely licked the dirt at the garden’s edge before fading and dying out at their feet. Gardening was outlawed then, and the old place was banned to all.
But the new arrivals were naïve to these stories, knowing nothing of the tales of devastation and debauchery that the place had inspired across the years. Every house in town was asleep the night they wandered along the road, heaved open the ancient creaking gates and followed the winding path up the stairs to the old weatherboard house, its outline barely distinguishable through the overgrowth of weeds.
It was the middle week of winter when they arrived in their new home, the sun rising long after they did and disappearing again before they had time to know what to do with it. The cold lingered inside the house like a bad smell, sneaking under doorways, rising through the floorboards and slipping between the bedsheets, before settling itself within their aching wandering bones. They drew the heavy curtains closed to keep it out, hiding beneath blankets and promising each other that they’d stay inside where it was safe and warm. But in quiet moments of privacy, while he wrote and she drew, they each found themselves secretly peeling back the dusty drapes, drawn to the rambling natural wildness growing just outside.
There was a pull to go to it, to care for its tired limbs in the same way they tended to each other’s. It was only a matter of time before temptation got the better of them.”
He was to be the first. While his love slept soundly tucked just besides, he rolled quietly from the covers and slipped out the front door and into the dead of the night. Perching on the bottom stair at the garden’s edge, his eyes followed the tangled skeletons of tree limbs, sorting each species from the other in the moonlight. Elm, ash, oak, beech. As if they were fellow nomads, he began to speak to them, sharing stories of places he had been, people he had met and the kind of man he wanted to be. For hours it seemed he spoke, until, finally satisfied, he retreated back inside to the comfort of the warm bed.
Within minutes he was deeply asleep again, but the eyes of his partner soon flicked open – the desire to go to the garden making sleep evasive. Barefoot, she padded lightly across the floorboards and down the stairs into the belly of the garden. The earth felt strangely warm beneath her feet and she began to pace circles around its perimeter, her outstretched fingers trailing lightly across the twisted branches as she walked. Thirty circles she must have strolled before the changing light signaled the close arrival of the new day. Sneaking quietly back to bed, she slid beneath the covers again, her night time adventure undiscovered.
The pair continued this pattern in secret each night, escaping to the garden’s edge to speak, walk and touch with a gentleness the place had not known for many years. In return, the garden began to soften, relaxing its borders under the care and attention of the travelers.
Before the end of the fortnight, the jonquils appeared. He was the first to notice the small clump of creamy white bulbs, half obscured beneath a hawthorn bush at the back of the garden. Their smell was powerful, intoxicating, delicious. Leaning down to cup his face closer to the blooms, he felt its roots pull easily from the earth and in his hands, he cradled the flower, bulb and all. Carefully, he carried the jonquil back to the house, to a patch of bare earth just below the window of their bedroom, and with gentle hands he pulled back the soft dirt and blanketed the bulb within the soil. He returned to his bed that night triumphant, inhaling the sweet aroma of the bloom outside as he lay next to his love and anticipated her excited reaction when she woke the next day.
Within minutes the newly planted bulb had multiplied. By the time she rose from sleep in the hours before dawn, hundreds of flowers had appeared in shades of pale yellow, buttercup and cream beneath the window, their perfume drifting through the bedroom. Delighted, she raced to her sewing box and found her mother’s best pinking shears. A smile bowed her lips as she imagined what her mother might think, her daughter smuggling the scissors into a forbidden garden, concealed within the folds of her skirts. Snip. Snip. Snip. The sound of the blades slicing through the stems of the bulbs was deeply satisfying.
Gently, she carried the precious flowers back to their bedroom, hiding them in the drawer next to where she slept.”
The following night she snuck into the garden with her dinner fork in tow, her eyes scanning the ground for signs of new life. And there, waiting for her beneath the arches of an old willow tree, green heads poked from the earth. She maneuvered her fork from left to right skillfully within the dirt, raising the small seedlings of daphne, witch hazel, winter sweet and honeysuckle from the clump at her feet. Returning to her nightly circuit around the garden perimeter, she spread the new seedlings along the path.
The bees came the next night. He heard them before he’d made it to the bottom of the stairs, a constant humm rising from the enormous japonica that grew monstrous over the back gate. Peering into the thorny shrub, he was amazed to find thousands of apple blossoms quivering to life beneath the touch of the nectar drinking bees. Thoughtful, he went to the final patch of flowering bulbs and stripped the petals from their stems. He set to work tearing each piece into tiny pieces and then with a careful hand, he evenly spread a trail of petals from the enormous bee hub all around the garden and the perimeter of the house, weaving amongst the weeds and patches of scrub.
As usual he noted new shrubs and flowers that had appeared in the garden. Tonight, he added daphne, witch hazel, winter sweet and honeysuckle to his list – all of his favourites.”
She slept soundly through the darkness that night, for once, too peaceful in her sleep to escape outside. When her eyes fluttered open the next morning she was aware of warm sunlight streaming across her face and the absence of a chill in the air. He had pulled the heavy curtains from the windows, and the warm natural light poured into every crack and crevice in the room. But it was the heavy sound of buzzing that drew her from the sheets and to the window overlooking the garden outside. Bees were everywhere, as far as her eyes could see. They were in the trees, the shrubs, the weeds, the undergrowth, the grass, flying back and forth in a frenzy. The old oak alone must have had a million of them weaving in and out of its branches.
That afternoon, a deep rumble echoed in the distance, sending the glass inside the window panes rattling. All at once the bees rose up from the garden, into the sky, and within the space of a minute, disappeared off into the void. From the sun-bathed window seat, the travelers didn’t notice, each working busily next to the other, he with his writing, she with her drawing.
But when the rain began to fall in heavy droplets outside, they both put down their tools to watch together in quiet content.”
It was three days before the rain let up. It fell with a heaviness that obscured the windows and the entire horizon outside. When the pair rose on the third morning, it was to discover a garden very different from the one they had first encountered on that moonlit night months ago, and they felt a stirring that it was time to leave. Green was everywhere. Green lawns, green weeds, green leaves. And where it wasn’t green, it was blossom, in every shade of pink, orange, white and blue. The scent of fresh apricots and damask roses filled the air. Spring had finally arrived.
Slowly, gently, the townsfolk returned to the garden, even though the trees kept their skin of thorns and weeds continued to ramble at their feet. They learned to understand its beauty, and appreciate the prickles as much as they loved the roses. As for the pair of wandering gardeners who had brought the landscape back to life, they had disappeared back into the night, departing as silently as they had arrived.