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The Last Garden

The Last Garden
by John W. Sexton

In the cottage lane there are nine front gardens; all of which you’ll have to pass if you wish to visit the rain. The rain is kept in the mumbling sea at the bottom of the lane. It is sought usually by the parched, or the heartless in need of light. For the kind of light you find in rain can’t be found anywhere else; it’s the kind of light that’s dark or bright at its own whim.

The first garden is a massive head of lavender with no break or seam. How one can pass it to the front door of the house is a secret; a secret not even known to postmen, nor to neighbours or even dogs or cats. Only the birds can pass over it, or the butterflies; moths can be shaken awake from it; earwigs know the tight rooms of it. The scent of it can entice you to its threshold, until, days later, you’ll find yourself still there, many days hungrier and fogged in memory.

The second garden is rough with failure, thistles shoulder to shoulder, many of them long-dead and brittle, their heads exploded into white fluff. Only snails venture in there, for the roots of the thistles are damp with rot.Paradox grows in that garden, for when a breeze rises, the seeds of the thistles will lift up and catch the light as they drift on. But a breeze rarely comes. Anyone stopping at the garden gate is want to hang their heads, and often there will be huddles of the despairing on the threshold of that garden. But days later they will be gone, thistles sprouting where they stood.

The third garden is crowded with black-eyed Suzies, all nodding their gold heads, and all of them holding the gaze of anyone who looks. In their black eyes there is something like a stairway up into the stars. There it winds, all the way up through the night, its banister steady. You’ll never fall on those stairs, so keep climbing; up you go, up, up, up. The stars are closer now, close enough nearly to catch, just a few more steps. And look at all those foolish old men, staring into that garden. They’ve been there since they were boys, with no need to eat or sleep. For the stars feed them as they climb those broadening stairs all the way up through the night, all the way up through their lost lives.

The fourth garden is all privet, with a gateway of hedge and a hedgehog; a hedgehog that is always entering the hedge anytime anyone passes. And the gateway of hedge is always in a different spot; sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, sometimes dead in the centre. And of course, what child could possibly pass without following that hedgehog? Butparents don’t like that prissy hedge; they hate it, they know it has to be mean. So they’ll follow their child; but the hedge will turn and turn and turn, and their child is somewhere in that twisting maze of privet; they can hear the laughter. Stop now; come back now; stay still now; I’m coming now; daddy’s coming now; Mummy’s coming now; but of course, no child will ever stop. No child will ever come back, will ever stay still; no more than any mummy will ever arrive, or any father either. But there it is: look, what’s that? Oh look, a hedgehog!

The fifth garden is orderly and bright, and full of indigo roses. A deep indigo almost black when the light is dim; but in full sunlight the indigo roses are a summer’s night. What woman could disdain the gift of such a rose? Surely any woman will fall immediately in love with any suitor who presents her with such a thing? And so you will reasonably think as you pluck one for your sweetheart; even a woman who despises you will be enthralled with such a gift. And so you will take a second, and then a third, and then a fourth and a fifth, and on and on until your arms are burdened with indigo roses, their deep scent the conviction of a true memory, when all things were simple and good. And you will pluck another, and another, not mindful that your hands are raw from grasping the thorns, not mindful that you are deeper and deeper into the garden; not mindful that the indigo bushes are towering over your head; not mindful of the thorns tearing your face, of the thorns taking your eyes; but lost in the conviction of a true memory, of roses redder than the sun, of sunlight searing and pure.

The sixth garden is low and wild, a statement of green. Grasses, sedges, ferns, all a-bustle in a verdant chant. A cooling calm from that low wild garden will draw you in, and yes, there are people in there before you. You can hear them whispering. You want to hear what they are saying, for you know that it will be utterly profound. So you step into the grass, through the ferns, and oh, up all around you are moths, fluttering lazily. Their bodies are gold or silver, and they rise in their thousands like soft coins. They flutter upon you and you are enchanted. They flutter upon you in their hundreds and you are covered in gold and silver dust. Then they clothe you in their thousands and you are a garment of wealth. You step further through the grasses and ferns, and more and more moths rise up, and now you are a walking fortune of silver and gold. Deeper and deeper you enter the garden and your wealth is as vast as the sky, as unending as the cosmos. As innocent as moths.

The seventh garden is a gentle brae, with the promise of a house on its height. Rising over the brae is a plume of white smoke; and on the brae, suddenly, cowslips. What freedom, a young man or woman will think as they step upon that green slope. Just a few steps and you’d be at the top. But at the top: a wonder. All above you, in terrace upon terrace, are wide meadows of cowslips. And look, sitting down in the meadows are cows, their dark enormous eyes full of submission. You step amongst them and they begin to rise, and you notice that their udders are heavy with milk; so much milk that some is dripping to the grass. You sit down on a low boulder, the better to see these swollen udders and their flowing teats, and at your feet you notice a bucket. You’ve never milked a cow before and you are intrigued. You place the bucket between your legs and a cow sidles up. This milking, it’s so easy! You pull at the teats and feel the warm milk splashing up against your hands. When the bucket is full you put it down. What a great help this will be for the farmer. All around are buckets full of milk, many hundreds of them. The cows are making their way up through the terraces of meadows, as many cows as there are buckets full of milk. Your arms are weary, but what a delight this has been; you’ve been milking for hours and they’ve flown, flown like seconds. What a great help this will be for the farmer. You make your way down to the edge of the brae; and spread out below you, without any sense of horizon, are miles and miles of terraced meadows.

The eighth garden is dense with decaisneas. Any who would know this plant might guess it is autumn, for the tall shrubs will be heavy with the long blue pods. But there are no seasons in this lane, only the seasons that the gardens need there to be. But the chances are good that you won’t know this plant. It’ll be a mystery to you. You’ll look at those vivid blue pods and you’ll shiver a bit. Then it’ll come to you. Dead Man’s Fingers, you’ll think to yourself, and you’ll be right. And then you’ll think, this plant is from China, and you’ll be right again. How delighted with yourself you’ll be, knowing so much about something you know nothing about. And then you’ll notice that the pods are splitting already, and you’ll see them opening up. Dripping from the pods is a clear, phlegm-like liquid. How horrible, you’ll think. And you’ll be wrong. For this liquid is sweet. Go on, you’ll think, just the tip of my finger, what harm could it do? And you’ll be right. What harm could it possibly do? And you’ll dab your finger to your tongue. Oh, you’ll think, and oh and oh! How sweet! How watermelon sweet! And then you’ll be splitting the pods with your thumbs, exposing the black beans sitting in their clear phlegm. You’ll slurp out that juice, you won’t be able to get enough of it. And you’ll be spitting those beans all over the garden; all over your clothes. But then you’ll notice. What will you notice? The beans will be squirming. And fidgeting and fodgeting. And toing and froing. And flittering and flottering. For these little beans are fairy foetuses, little sprites not long conceived. Oh, but you’ve swallowed one? Ah, no need to worry. These little sprites like nothing more than to wear a person. They’ll take you for a stroll, they’ll take you on an adventure. But where will they take you? Perhaps there’s a garden in the lane you haven’t been to yet?

The ninth garden is utterly devoid of any plant or blade of grass. The bare earth is rife with a stink of piss, a piss so intense it could sterilize the air. The garden is bordered by a low wall and a broken gate, its metal grille eaten through with rust, with hardly any metal left to it, just a frail ghost of a metal gate. You could wait here for days, or even weeks, if you were foolish enough, and you’ll not see a single cat venture onto that low wall, or indeed venture anywhere near. Hardly surprising, you’ll realise, once you see the sign by the gate, with its black-lettered warning of BEWARE OF THE DOG. But you could wait here for days, or even weeks if you were foolish enough, and you’d not hear a single bark or whimper. But if you cast your eye down the bare path, all the way to the black lump of a house, with its dense black walls as dark as soot, walls that seem to breathe, seem to heave in and out, you might not be so foolish as to take a step beyond that piss-rusted gate. And if you have any sense at all, just a smidgen of sense will do, you’ll turn on your heel and make your way back down through the lane. Most people have done exactly that. But sadly, very few have ever turned on their heels and gone out of that lane without dawdling, without dawdling at the gates of one other of those gardens.

As for the rain, it is reputed to reside at the end of that lane, in a sopping, mumbling sea. Many have heard it, they say, complaining in its sleep, bemoaning its life and troubles; but very few have actually seen it beyond a glimpse. And there are some who claim it’s actually a garden itself, a tenth garden; but none have gotten close enough to be sure.

* * *

John W. Sexton lives in the Republic of Ireland and is the author of six poetry collections, the most recent being Futures Pass, which was published by Salmon Poetry in 2018. He is a past nominee for The Hennessy Literary Award and his poem The Green Owl won the Listowel Poetry Prize 2007. In 2007 he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. His poems are widely published and some have appeared in Apex, Dreams & Nightmares, The Edinburgh Review, The Irish Times, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Mirror Dance, The Pedestal Magazine and Strange Horizons.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

From the age of about eight until I was sixteen my family lived in a part of North London between Turnpike Lane and Finsbury Park. We lived at that time in a house in Fairfax Road, and all the adjoining roads were connected by an alleyway that ran middle-ways between them all. A few streets away, in Frobisher Road, right on the corner beside the alleyway that divided that road in two, there was a house with a high wall that ran into the alleyway. Beyond the wall, which we often stood on as a dare, was a wild garden. The weeds were so high in the summer months that if you fell into them you’d imagine you’d disappear. And everyone had it that in that house lived an old witch. She was famous through all the adjoining streets as the Frobisher Road Witch, and some said she wore clothes of grey with a grey hat, but many had it too that she sometimes wore pink with a pink hat.

Of course, it was very difficult to find anyone who claimed to have actually seen her themselves, for it was always someone else who had told them they’d seen her. Every single report about her existence was second-hand and from third parties, and in all the years there I never saw her myself. The curtains in the windows were so grey that they looked like they were made of dust. We would often sit up on the high wall looking into the garden, hoping that the witch would come out so that we could see her. She never came, much to my relief. I think that perhaps everyone was relieved that she never came into the garden, but we wore our bravado stubbornly and often sat there for ages. Not once, in all those years, did anyone venture down into the garden itself. It was as if the weeds threw out a barrier to ward us off.

And from that time I have been fascinated with both the beauty and the strange loneliness that even the most wonderful garden can appear to be imbued with. Wild or pristine, gardens have a mystery about them, and “The Last Garden” is a kind of meditation on all those mysteries I have found in all of the gardens I have entered. And sometimes, sometimes long after we have left a garden, we feel a longing to go back there, as if a part of it still lingers within us.