Still roses decayed on the vines. The garden’s green was deep and brittle, shrivelled to the desiccated stylus of lifeless poetry, clinging to dry, dusty earth. Leaves rattled in the wind like haggard breath, calling for one last kiss from their lover suns. The light would not touch them. It dropped down, plummeting toward the garden, and then all at once twisted aside, condemning it to perpetual shade.
Gresha lay on the grass, her dress torn by brambles and ochre with dirt, a smile on her face any picnicker would happily return, one cheek itching manically from the tickle of grass. No—one returned her smile. She did not care. The lifeless grass clawed her through her clothes, threatening to draw blood. She didn’t notice.
Absently, she let her eyes drift in lazy saccade, and spoke to her garden of what she saw.
“The liddies are thriving,” she said to their papery snouts. “You indiglots look so charming.” They rattled, deaf echoes in their hollow bells.
Gresha’s favourites were roses. They of all flowers seemed most amplified by death, their thorns blade—sharp, the red of their petals almost black. “You’re beautiful,” she told them, a tear leaking from her eye. “I could lose myself in you.”
She almost did. Clouds swam across the sky, the suns arced, dusk came down in a haze of gold. All the while, Gresha was in her flow. She stared at the roses and wondered how long she might keep staring. She made it a game; once she stopped weeding details out of them, she’d head home. She remembered where she had found each of those roses, before settling them in the sheltered grove.
“You were from that night at the river banquet,” Gresha recalled. “After I was betrothed.” She chuckled at the thought. “That worked out well, didn’t it? Mychelli, touching my hand in front of all those people and asking me to grow old with him, have his children, make him happy. Everyone was so pleased.”
She frowned, recalling something she had almost forgotten. “He never wore his binding bracelet. He was looking for a reason to back out, I suppose. I guess I’m glad he did. It was a shame about the banquet, though.” Out of the corner of Gresha’s eye, she spotted a tendril of bright green sprouting from between the rusty blades of the lawn. She adjusted her weight, reached out two bony fingers and clamped them on the sapling, pulling it out by the roots. “Weeds.” She pouted.
Shock punched through her as Gresha realised she had taken her eyes off the roses and lost her self—inflicted game. When she looked again, the shapes spun through their vines in the geometry of her mind had broken. She flopped on her back for a second, rocked her weight and used the momentum to pull herself upright, balancing on spindly legs. Her mother had once said her frame was ladylike. Her sister had retorted that Gresha looked like a spider.
“Next time, friends,” she warned her roses, wagging a finger. “You can’t win forever.”
Dry silence met her, and she drank it in as others drink conversation, letting it fill her with cold vitality. As though oblivious to their sterile response, she brushed the dust off her skirts, smiled at the roses crookedly, and turned to pass beneath the stone archway of the garden’s high wall. “I’ll be back soon,” she promised, reaching to stroke an outreaching vine. Gresha’s fingertip met it with a snap as a twig broke away and fell to the ground. Humming, she left her garden and dragged shut its stone door behind her.
Up the path through the forest’s pines Gresha reached her cottage, acutely aware that something was amiss. Her eyes passed indifferently over the bright needles of the surrounding trees and settled on the cottage’s slumping frame. The grey slate roof reeked of rot and announced the house by the aura of its smell. But this was not what was wrong. She felt her steps cut into uneven blocks as she hurried closer. The floating pots that ringed the house and the desiccated specimens within them chattered in the low wind. But this was not what was wrong. What was wrong was that one of the bay windows hung smashed on its frame, and broken glass nestled in the white and fungal shrubbery below.
Gresha’s hands balled into fists. Her jaw clenched as she marched up the steps to the front door and flung it open.
Her face hot, her limbs shaking, she sucked in a deep breath and approached the howling pandemonium of a full—blooded yell. But at its edge, her voice snatched. It felt like an explosion in her throat, held static by gentler instincts. She stumbled over the ragged carpet and stood framed by the door, fighting for balance.
“Who’s there?” she croaked hoarsely, not recognising her own voice. Gresha felt the hideous bulk of a kha’s presence moving through her home, occupying all spaces at once, the potential of its infection everywhere. She reached for the hand—rake she kept by the door with her other tools, knocking over the pot she kept them in. It rolled sideways and smashed on the floor.
“Gresha?” a voice called out. Recognition prickled through her, warping through the chimerical memories of her abandoned past.
“M–Mychelli?” she asked uncertainly.
From the left, in the narrow room where she kept her books and oddments, Mychelli appeared. He filled the gap between the slumping ceiling and the uneven floorboards, a shade immense. Gresha couldn’t look at him, never could look at a face for longer than a glimpse before diverting her sight elsewhere. His shoes happened to be where they refocused. Snug black leather, silver clasps. The same high fashion to which he had always aspired. Mychelli changed his look, his clothes chromatophore and camouflage. Yet he was always, Gresha thought, exactly the same. The same demanding presence, being where it didn’t belong.
“You broke my window,” she said, still looking at his shoes.
“It is you,” he replied, to himself. “I couldn’t believe you really lived here, when I came up the path. Everything’s dead, and that terrible smell… I broke in because I thought the place was abandoned. I thought I’d be able to find out where you’d gone.”
“This is my home,” she asserted. “It’s mine.” Her eyes darted to his face, and she saw the confusion there, glaring out of the hodgepodge kha—ness of eyebrows and lips and funny ears. Her eyes settled on the ceiling board above his head, on the knotted puddle of brown wood rippling through the lighter hues. How could she make it clearer to him? “You broke my window,” she repeated.
“I’ll fix the window,” he said, his tone edged. “Look, forget the window.” Something shifted imperceptibly in him, the colours of his clothes swirled. Gresha caught a glimpse of gold at his wrist. “It’s so good to see you again! Everyone’s missed you terribly. Your sister, your mother, me… none of us knew where you went. We were worried.”
She raised a hand defensively across her chest, oblivious to the fact she still clutched the hand—rake like an extending claw. “I wrote a letter. Mother was screaming last time I saw her.”
“Well, we were all screaming,” he said, speaking to her as though to a child. “Didn’t you see what happened? We were talking about the marriage, remember? Then the servants brought the third course, imported flax wine and pandragorum root. And then…”
Gresha did not have to look at him to ascertain his discomfort. She knew what had happened next. She had been staring down into the shallow bowl before her, contemplating the broiled root with silent disgust. The pandragorum looked suspiciously like a mutilated corpse, sinewy threads jutting from bulbous limbs. Mychelli had been talking of baby boys, having enough of them to revive the names of a dozen bachelor uncles. Her gut had heaved. The pandragorum at each place setting had responded to her discomfort with sudden convulsion. They had leapt up at their dinner guests, ready to throttle them with their stringy roots. Chaos had ensued. Amidst shrieks and thrashing and accusations of wychcraft Gresha slipped away, plucking a single perfect rose from the bushes as she went.
“Well… that’s all over now, dear. They caught the sorcerer responsible ages ago. Hanged him in Turbleton in the Shuwwir. Then it was just a matter of finding you, to let you know it’s safe to come home. It was hard work, but eventually –”
“I’m not going back,” Gresha said, not waiting for him to finish. “This is my home. I have a garden.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “The weather here is terrible! Your garden is a mess. We’ll come back with a couple of lads from the village, bring your plants back in wheelbarrows, if you like. But you can’t stay here. It isn’t healthy, living on this twisted heath, surrounded by decay. You can’t do this to yourself.”
Gresha shut her eyes. “I don’t have to listen to you,” she said. “I live here now. This is my place, and you can’t tell me what to do.”
“You’re killing yourself,” he pleaded. “You aren’t well.”
Why wouldn’t he just leave? “I feel good here,” she said.
He sighed and reached to scratch at his wrist. Gresha looked and saw that he was wearing his binding bracelet. Could that mean…?
“I didn’t want to bring this up just yet,” he said. “But we’re still engaged. That doesn’t disappear, just because you ran away. I hear you saying you’re happy here, but you were going to be happy with me, too, remember? That’s why you said ‘yes’. Maybe you don’t want to go back to your old life, but it won’t be like it was before. We’ll have our own estate. We’ll make our life exactly as we want it to be.”
Gresha paused. She had wanted that. In part because it meant getting away from her parents, her mother’s “sit straight”s and her father’s endless parties. But also, admittedly, because Mychelli had asked. No—one had ever asked her, the younger daughter, the one whose tongue was crippled as some had crippled legs, whose eyes were wild birds, never resting on anything close enough to be touched. It was nice to be wanted.
But was it better than being alone?
“We don’t need to make the decision right now,” Mychelli said eagerly, sighting inspiration. “Let me stay a night. You’ll see things better, once you’ve slept on it.”
Gresha felt a tingle of uncertainty. “I don’t have another bed,” she said.
“Of course not. This place is uncomfortably small, but I saw a rocking chair behind those shelves. That’ll do, at a push.”
She supposed that it would be alright, if he really wanted to stay. She wouldn’t leave with him–it was too late now to upset her rosebushes and dig up the other flowers. She gave the slightest nod and wandered off without another word to rummage in her dresser for a spare blanket. It would be nice, she supposed, to sit at the fork of the two potential futures for a time, and watch their branches grow.
Mychelli busied himself with picking up the shards of glass around the window, squatting uncomfortably on the tips of his shoes. He jabbered constantly, to Gresha’s annoyance. She sat in her rocking chair and clutched her knees, staring at inconsequential peripheries within his aura, but never quite letting him get out of sight.
“It’s lovely back home. You missed the Glimmerin Parade. The Canon permitted a troupe of jugglers this year, and it made for a spectacular show. Madame Gonquin said they were the finest in years. You don’t get anything like that passing this far out of the way.”
“No,” she confirmed, not missing the noise of passing carnivals in the least.
“It must be boring. Only these few books, no music or conversation to pass the time–I wouldn’t have been able to sit still at all. You must be aching to get out and do something.”
“I have a garden,” she replied.
“Yes, you have a garden,” he repeated. “Frondwort and mewgrass and pricklebush, I expect. I can’t imagine anything much growing here.”
She shut her eyes, wishing he would go away. “There are flowers,” she said. She imagined the roses, crawling over the walls. “They’re dark, and beautiful. I like looking at them sometimes, seeing how they move over one another, slow and gentle, and it’s peaceful. I like it when the world’s like that. Everything has its own place.” She opened them, and caught a snapshot of the strange, twisting look on his face. Her eyes darted away.
“That must be the most I’ve ever heard you say at once,” he said, scraping loose the shards clinging to the window frame. “You should talk more. You must think a lot, being so quiet all the time. People want to hear what you’re thinking.” Something moved inside of her, uncoiling, relaxing. “So long as it isn’t morbid, or rude. But talking gets easier when you practise.” It quivered and died.
She shifted in her chair. “I’m going to bed now,” she told him, standing abruptly.
“Really? We haven’t even had dinner! Aren’t you hungry?”
“No,” she replied, looking down. She left him at the window and retreated to her bedroom. Before climbing beneath the quilts on her lumpy bed, she took three jars from her windowsill and stacked them one on top of the other in front of the door. She didn’t want Mychelli walking in while she was sleeping. Her sister told her boys would do that, sometimes.
She dug a hand under her pillow and pulled out a papery collage of dead leaves. Their damp, bitter aroma filled her nostrils, and carried her off into the forest. She traced the lines webbing across them as though they were the words of a love letter lost in time, rich in the shadowy substance of memory. Their tips twitched as she stroked them.
Drifting off, it occurred to her Mychelli might be hungry himself, and she had not shown him the larder. But Mychelli was smart and would take whatever he wanted. She could always count on people doing that.
Twitching her fingers, her lips in silent motion, she fell into uneasy sleep.
When she woke the next morning, it took a moment to remember there was someone in her cottage. She started at the thought, gathered the leaves from her mattress and shoved them back under her pillow. She moved the jars and crept with slow dread across the hall. Mychelli was sitting on a stool by the cracked black stove, burning a pan of scrambled eggs. He took one look at her and laughed. Her vision whirred and refocused on the coal fire and the crackling lumps within.
“Your hair’s a nightmare! It’s all frazzled. Have a look in the mirror, before it settles.”
“I don’t have a mirror,” she said, reaching to pat down her hair.
Mychelli grinned, staring mercilessly. “I made you breakfast,” he said. “Don’t tell me you’re not hungry, you have to be after skipping supper last night.”
“I am hungry,” she agreed. She fetched a pair of cracked plates and bent forks from beneath the washbasin and held them out for the eggs. Mychelli dished them over into equal heaps, leaving a runny residue in the pan. She went to sit and eat in her rocking chair, and Mychelli followed her.
“I thought it over, and I reckon we could be back home in a week,” he said through a mouthful of egg. “We can get a carriage in Jaquenham. It isn’t that far, once we get to the northern road.”
“I won’t leave my garden,” Gresha replied at once. He needed to understand that. But somehow, it was still lost on him.
“Yes, I didn’t forget,” he said. “I’m sure we can put your favourite flowers in some of these old pots and take them with us.”
“No,” she said. “They need to be together.” In the earth. In this place. Why wasn’t that clear to him? It was so obvious she shouldn’t have to say it. If she said it, he’d get mad, and he’d shout, or throw something, or break another window. It was the sort of thing you had to hear from yourself. If she said it it would be morbid, or ugly, or rude. If it came from him, he’d accept it at once.
Mychelli sighed again, with the same dramatic edge she was sure he conserved for children throwing tantrums. “We’ll go down to see your garden then. Maybe there’s something else we can do.”
Gresha was unsure and finished her breakfast in silence. She did not want him there, or to have the memory of him linger there for the rest of her life. But she knew he wouldn’t leave if he didn’t see it or know how happy it made her. She would have to be brave. She’d have to let him in. Then he would leave her be, and she could move on with her life. Mychelli would find another girl to marry, who talked about everything he wanted to hear and gave him a litter of baby boys who would grow up to be just like him. And she would have her garden.
She took his plate and put the dishes in the basin. “Come,” she said, her eyes scanning the line of his clothes, which had changed again, their embroidery in swirl.
He followed her as she left the cottage and walked determinedly down the path. He spoke, and she ignored him, his words jangling about him like bells he used to announce his presence.
Deeper in the woods, between a spread of pines, the cracked and crumbling wall of her garden rose from the earth and loomed like the exposed fossil of something ancient, dead and powerful. Mychelli stopped.
“It’s here?” he said. “In this ruin? We shouldn’t be here, Gresha, it could be dangerous. Horrible things live in ruins. Bandits and ghosts and wolves and things.”
“It’s just a garden,” she said, reaching for the mossy door. It usually took a shove to open properly, but today it had jammed shut, and didn’t move when she pushed. “Help,” she said.
He took a hesitant step, and then leaned against the door with her. “We should go back. I can get you more flowers.”
“No,” she said.
The archway yawned as the stones beneath it scraped loose from the desiccated earth. Gresha hurried inside, her feet prickling pleasantly on the serrated grey lawn. The roses seemed to turn towards her, and the wind shook a death rattle from the hanging bells of dried up leaves. They were gorgeous, quintessent, spectacular–in their quiet, accepting way. Better friends to her than Mychelli ever could be. They loved her in a way she had never felt from anyone. Not for being a daughter, or a sister, or a fiancée, but for being herself.
She whirled to see him, feeling for once the courage to look straight at him. He was pale, his lips thin, disapproving, ill. He looked left and right, from the stagnant black pond by the silverdrops to the trellised castle of her prized sanguine roses, creeping up their vines. To see the disgust cut into his face ripped the smile from hers.
“This is my garden,” she said solemnly, knowing he would never understand.
“It’s… putrid,” he wheezed. “Divines, the stench of it… the decay…”
“Sweet perfume,” she said, taking in an intoxicating breath. “Everything smells sweetest, when it’s dead.”
“It’s wrong, Gresha,” he said walking toward her, one hand raised before his face, as if to disperse the hot waves of undeath, and the sight of the skeletal plants. “You’re not well, we need to leave.” He reached out to grab her hand and she pulled it back sharply, slapping his away. The sudden, brutal contact made her heart shudder.
“Don’t touch me,” she said, panic edging her soft voice harder and louder, like a dagger rising in her throat. “You can’t say that to me here. You can leave, Mychelli, but I’m staying. You understand that? I’m staying.” She trembled, scared not of Mychelli, but the urgent pressure building in her gut. Mychelli lurched forward again and grabbed her wrist before she could dart away.
She shrieked. “NO!”
“You can’t!” Mychelli hissed through bared teeth. The face she had never been able to look at was sucking her in, a maw of ivory and shining white eyes. “This garden is making you sick. You’ll die out here alone. Your family wants to look after you, they love you.” She dropped her knees, sinking down into the scratchy grass. He tugged and began to drag her toward the open door. She started to cry, unable to help herself. “Listen to me, I’m your fiancé–your friend. Doesn’t that mean anything to you? You can’t just say ‘no’ to this. You can’t choose to be sick, you don’t get to kill yourself. You’ve got to get better, Gresha. We can fix this!”
The panic smeared across her eyes like an oil slick, darkness blossoming over blazing brushes of white and green. Her legs were cut and bleeding, scratched open by the lawn. Her crying cut off with a shuddering moan; another sound was coming to the fore. A rustling. The high wind. The angry discourse of her garden.
Mychelli dropped her hand.
She snatched it to her chest and curled up into a tight ball, rocking slightly, her hands sticky with the blood smeared on her shins. She did not want to look. He made an odd noise of alarm, a “Ha—” that cut off immediately. He fell to the ground next to her. She felt that new magnetic need to find his face.
Her eyes cracked open and she saw him, flailing soundlessly as he struggled with a legion of twisting black vines that tethered his limbs. She saw the dishevelled mop of his hair, and the thin tendrils running through it like fingers. From the mad flail of branches through the air she saw a twist of a stem, and a blossoming red rose turning toward her, its hypnotic petals an eye looking down into hers.
“I love the colours this year,” she said softly to her garden. “I love you every year.” As she walked around the circle of the lawn, fingers splayed to touch the petals of flowers as she passed, she imagined that their heads turned to follow her, talking back to her in their own rustling tongue. She stopped at the pond. She always stopped there, just in case she might see. Once in a while, Mychelli’s face would stare up at her from the eutrophic depths, blank and still, with a thoughtful acceptance he had never had in life.
“I like you better this way,” she admitted to the body in the black waters. Then she walked on, toward her roses, who had more life in their still stems than she had ever found in all the rotten people she had once known.
About the Author
Gerard Mullan is a debutant sci-fi and fantasy author doing his best to bring a little magic to the world.