S H O R T S T O R Y
IN OPHELIA'S GARDEN
b y s t e p h a n i e p a r e n t ~ b a l t i m o r e , m a r y l a n d
Rosemary: remembrance Once an old woman taught me how to grow a garden.Wisdom always comes at a price, you know.They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. -Ophelia, Hamlet, IV.V.44-46
I will teach you to grow this garden, but the knowledge will cost you. You won’t be able to avoid the thorn bushes; on your arms a web of scratches will bloom, delicate as Queen Anne’s Lace. Your fingers will bleed and your bare feet will grow tough as leather. Unprotected by your thin cotton dress, your neck and shoulders will blister under the sun. Your hair will slip free of the knot atop your head, growing longer and catching on the thorns, weighing you down like thick coils of rope. Your voice will grow too parched to sing, to call out for a fairy godmother or a lover. You will be too tired to attend the balls, the weddings and the christenings.
Mother had sent me to gather wild rosemary, so we could sprinkle the leaves on our risen bread loaves before baking them. But the rosemary I found wasn’t wild; it grew at the edge of a garden, a garden I’d never noticed before, though I could have sworn I’d searched every inch of these woods before. One whiff of fresh rosemary, sharp and pungent, and I can remember everything about that day: the way herbs and vegetables and flowers crowded every inch of the clearing, leaves in a hundred shades of green, plump crimson tomatoes, luscious violet and cream and orange petals. And this was a year when our village’s farms were nearly barren, ravaged by drought and starving deer and rabbits.
That day, I didn’t notice a cottage by the garden, although I’m sure it was there. I learned later that the house had a way of blending into the trees.
Never one to fear trespassing, I clipped my handful of rosemary and turned back toward the woods. Then the woman appeared in front of me, out of nowhere, like one of the trees come to life—long silver hair, limbs brown and cracked like branches, eyes bright green and still young somehow. I knew the rosemary was hers, and I thought she would punish me for taking it; replace my head with that of a sheep, perhaps; lock me in a dungeon; or demand my firstborn child as payment.
But she smiled. You’ve found my garden, she said. Not everyone can find my garden. Then she stepped aside, and I seized my chance for escape. I tore through the woods like a wild thing, not caring if branches scratched my skin and tangled in my hair; I was never so glad to return to the dull familiarity of my father’s bakery.
Next week my mother sent me for more rosemary. I searched and searched, but there was no clearing in the forest; the garden and the old woman were gone.
Do you really want to become a witch in a gingerbread cottage, or the old hag who locked Rapunzel in a tower? That’s how you’ll be remembered, you must know, if you grow this garden. The world doesn’t know what to make of women like us. We are dangerous and wise, they all say, so we must be evil.
I was hopeless as a baker’s daughter. I would over-knead the dough as I daydreamed, and then, preoccupied by a chapbook or broadside, I’d burn the loaves. And it only got worse as I became older.Fennel: flattery
In my defense, it wasn’t easy having Angela as an older sister. That Angela is so gentle, so sweet and charitable, the mothers would gossip. Did you know that a fairy blessed her for her kindness, and now every loaf of bread she bakes becomes twice as large?
And the girl is quite pretty, too, the mothers of young men would add. How I’d love to have her as my daughter-in-law!
What the gossipers said of me was not so kind. First, I was simply scatterbrained, clumsy, a dreamer. But then I grew older. I became a slut.
You see, all the thoughts that had distracted me as a child—the fairy tales, imaginary worlds, elves and pixies and witches—all that changed. My thoughts transformed into desires, a great need opening in me, like a thousand pairs of wings drumming and pounding against my insides. And when I was alone, I would open my mouth and the wings would come flying out—fuchsia and sky blue and crimson-patterned butterfly wings, paper-thin and so delicate; slick purple-black raven feathers; the whirring motors of ladybugs and fireflies, so small they were almost invisible; the shimmering white of doves and angels—each pair different, as limitless and enthralling as anything I could imagine.
Perhaps you would rather be remembered as a drowning girl, drowning in flowers and vines, forever beautiful and pure?
It is unbelievable, the stories people make up to explain all the lost girls, the ones who went missing and the ones who didn’t turn out as expected. Did you know that once, they said a young girl had turned into an owl? She was the baker’s youngest daughter, and one day, they say, on old beggar woman came into the bakery, and the girl was rude. The old crone was, of course, a fairy in disguise—aren’t they all?—and as punishment she turned the girl into an owl.
A story is always better than the truth.
On my evenings to tend the bakery, I developed a habit of closing early, shutting out all the customers—even, once, a starving beggar woman.Columbines: disloyalty
At twilight, I wandered the village edge where the trees became thicker, the atmosphere darker. The midsummer air was so damp and heavy, like fingers pressing into my skin; the heat brought out the heady odor of wood and soil, the delicate hints of honeysuckle and gooseberries.
Of course I would allow the smells to envelop me; of course I would follow the trail of scent into the trees; in this wild and mysterious place, so strange and yet so familiar, I would unearth the roots of my desire.
Soon—as you have probably predicted—my time in the woods was transformed. Instead of bark and slippery leaves, my hands roamed the taut, muscular angles of a man’s body; instead of honeysuckle nectar, my lips melted into kisses. All the wings I had imagined were pouring, now, from my mouth to his—but only so he could return them to me again, stronger, darker, and brighter.
When you’re young and naïve, people say, you may believe you’re in love; but really, they say, the young don’t know what love is.
What I think is, if you feel something—even if only for one brief moment, if only in a dream—that feeling is true.
I loved Carl. I loved the way he smelled, like sweet maple and bracing pine and sturdy oak. I loved the way sawdust coated his fingers, the way the dust emanated from his pockets, and sometimes even from his sand-colored hair. I loved the scar that traced its way up his left arm, from the saw he had dropped early in his apprenticeship. His skin was so strong, skin that could survive being split open and emerge even more beautiful.
I loved the feel of his body, solid as wood beside mine, when we were alone in the forest; when he pinned me against the broadest oak tree and slipped inside of me. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be molded, shaped, transformed by him, like one of his beautifully carved vanities or dressers.
But I was wrong about Carl. I didn’t know him at all. One day, he looked away when we passed on the dirt road. He didn’t meet me in the woods at night.
News travels fast in a small village, and within the week, I learned that Carl was engaged to marry.
Some of the lost girls will come to your garden, asking for the unthinkable, thinking they have already reached the pit of their despair. They need abortions.
It falls on you to add to their misery: you must give them herbs that cause them great pain; you must guide them to the edge of death and back.
The lost women will leave, searching for an old home or a new one. You, however, will have to stay, watching them go, realizing what you have become: the witch in her enchanted garden.
Not much time passed before I was back where I’d started, wandering alone among the trees; but now I was stopping to retch, every few minutes it seemed, and clinging to branches to keep from falling.Daisies: infidelity
And that was when I found the garden for the second time. The old woman, looking just as she had when I was a little girl, was standing outside of her cottage. Waiting for me.
Inside the little wooden house, the kitchen was crowded with herbs: golden feverfew and lavender blossoms lined one wall; masses of tiny pennyroyal, thyme and marjoram leaves dangled from the ceiling. Above the cacophony of smells, I picked out lemon balm and peppermint, so sweet I could almost taste them—they’d been freshly ground, I realized, as I noticed the mortars on the table.
The woman hung a cauldron of water from the hook over the kitchen fireplace; then she pulled one bunch from the wall, so quickly that she seemed to know its location by heart. You can pick out rue by the blue tint of its leaves, she said, and by its bitter smell. She waved the herb before my face, and I drew back involuntarily; the odor was enough to set my stomach heaving again.
You must measure three pinches of rue, each the width and thickness of a thimble, between your thumb and forefinger. She dropped the three pinches into a teacup. Rue is a poison. Any less than three pinches, and it won’t be strong enough to kill the fetus; any more, and it might kill you. She ladled hot water from the cauldron into the cup. It takes only a minute or two to steep. A single pinch of rue, she continued, also taken as a tea, is a remedy against decaying eyesight. And planting rue at the borders of your garden helps keep away the insects.
You don’t tell this to all the women who come here? I asked, shaking like a frightened child who has been caught stealing rosemary.
No. She smiled as she handed me the cup. Survive this, she said, and I will teach you everything I know.
A life inside of you does not die quietly. But you already know that, so I will spare you the details; suffice it to say that two weeks after the first cup of rue, my womb was empty, and I was well enough to accompany the old woman outside as she tended her garden.
One day, when I’ve taught you all I can, it will be time for me to leave. You see, I have tended this garden for so long, and there is so much more out there in the world.
I know, I seem so weak that I can barely walk from one end of the garden to the other. How will I travel?
But I must go. I tell you I will be back next year, by the time the roses bloom, to see you again.
I won’t come back. But sometimes, when the roses bloom, you leave your window open at night and let the scent drift through your dreams. Then you hear a strange sound—who, who—and you open your eyes. Illuminated by the moon, you see the regal sweep of an owl’s feathers; the bird is hovering outside your window, and its deep, dark eyes stare as if they recognized you.
You wonder if I am nearby, watching you, as you turn over and go back to sleep.
At first, I am so exhausted from growing the garden—alone, now that my teacher has left—that I cannot think beyond the aches of bone and muscle. Then, slowly, the loneliness creeps up on me, like a cancer that spreads through my body and threatens to consume it.
But always, at the moment my solitude becomes too much to bear, the garden opens itself to the world, and I have a visitor. Often it is a girl, seeking a love potion or the antidote to overzealous love; sometimes a child with a cough and a chill, who has had visions of his own death; sometimes an old man or woman whose body refuses to work as it must.
Oh, but sometimes it is a traveler, a man who—like me—left the home that was no home for him long ago. He needs a good meal and a warm bed; perhaps he has hurt himself and must stay a few weeks, while I bind his broken bones or make poultices for his wounds. He offers me stories of far-away places; I offer him my naked body; and for a few days we assuage each other’s loneliness.
Yet he is always a wanderer, as surely as I am a gardener. The bones heal, the wounds close, and I am standing at the edge of my garden again, watching him vanish into the woods.
After years spent tending your garden, you will wake one morning and wish to see your reflection. You will dig a hole in the soil, both wider across and deeper than you are tall, and you will line the hole with flat stones you have collected. The pond will fill with rainwater, and beside it a willow tree will grow, even though you did not plant one. You will grasp the fragile tree trunk as you lean over the water, peering at your wavering reflection. One moment, you will see lines around your eyes and mouth, like the lines that have begun to crisscross over your hands; then, when a sunray hits the water, you will see yourself as young and more beautiful than ever: hair shimmering and blowing in the breeze; eyes shining, the brightest blue; lips as fresh as a flower that has just been plucked.
Then one of the travelers comes back, bringing a bouquet of wild violets he has gathered. He says that he has found marvelous new seeds during his travels, and that he thought of me and my garden, and had to bring some back to me. He looks tired, but handsome and kind; the lines of his face soften the darkness of his eyes. When we kiss, I feel like a girl again, dreaming of fairy tales as I wander through the woods.
He cannot stay forever—he is a traveler by nature—but when he leaves I know he will be back, bearing violets and seeds from across the world.
I dream of the day a girl will stumble upon my garden, searching for rosemary, or perhaps for wild laurel blossoms, or the tiny sour-sweet raspberries that sometimes grow in the woods. She will look like the daughter I never had. She is coming soon—I can feel her presence on the wind, I can smell her in the herbs and blossoms. I will recognize her the second I see her, I am sure of it. I have faith.
One morning, when you step outside to water the first violets of spring, you hear a strange splashing from the pond you have built. Then you see an owl—a small one, not a baby but not full-grown either—hovering just above the surface of the water. One of its wings is beating furiously, enough to keep it from drowning but not enough to propel it to dry land; its other wing seems to be broken. How cruel, you think, that the owl had to fall just at that spot. You want to save it, but you cannot reach it from the shore; the pond is deep, and you never learned to swim.
But the owl is fighting so valiantly. How could you not help it? So you step into the pond and gasp—the water is cold as death. Another step and the hem of your dress is soaked; a third and the water hits your knees. The pond is dirty as well as cold, and your body parts disappear one by one: now it is your thighs you can no longer see nor feel. Then your stomach. Your chest. Your shoulders. Your neck. Your mouth. And the owl is still ahead of you, just out of arm’s reach.
Finally you are submerged completely, blind and frozen. Yet the sensation of water surrounding your body is somehow familiar, and you are no longer afraid. This feels like coming home, you realize: you have been drowning your entire life.
Then you feel half-frozen feathers against your fingers, and at the moment you grasp the bird, its body goes limp. You turn and walk out of the pond, pushing with all your might against the water that clutches you, pulling you down, begging you to stay with it forever. You hug the owl against your chest, thinking of air, of sunlight, of the bird’s faint but sure heartbeat against your own.
You carry the owl through your garden, both of you such fragile things, broken, but still able to heal.
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