I had been living in the garden for a week before I met the master gardener’s wife, another three before she loved me, and two more before, lying face-up under the foxglove, she said, ‘Noam, don’t you wish you could be closer to the sky?’
I didn’t. I never have. Here I have ground and all the ground below it filled with seeds, worms, beetles, roots, sticks, bulbs, and toads. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.
When I met the master gardener what else could I be expected to do but become his lover? And when I found out his wife kept all the climbing plants?
The master gardener is not heavy but is fat of feature, scent, and voice. It is the fattest points of his body, his nose and thumbs, that seem most true. He likes me for being a small thing and young, though I am not so young as the sort of small thing he imagines me to be. Still he gets to call me his boy and keep me in the garden, and I get to stay in the garden.
His wife is also small. The master gardener is the type of man is proudest of his prize for baby’s breath though he would wear the camellias around his neck. Though he would set his tents under the magnolias fullest in bloom. His servants are to bring me full pies and blocks of cheese with honey.
His wife brings me muscadines and strawberries and looks at me without distaste, so eventually I stop taking the pies and the servants stop bringing them. They don’t tell the master gardener about his wife’s new lover. They have one less job, and pies.
When he finds out anyway, he only says, ‘So you’ve met our little garden gnome!’ and then, to me, ‘Gerte’s always happy when she has someone new to play with,’ in the voice used by men for dogs of whom they are particularly fond and who they never expect might respond. His wife grasps my hand.
I lie on top of the master gardener because he asks me to, though I don’t like the feeling. The master gardener is the type of man who is always warm, but this only makes the air above his chest and stomach feel colder. He rocks back and forth a bit and says, ‘You’re flying!’ and I want to get back to the garden and lie on the ground. First we have to eat duck herbed with small flowers so he can roll me underneath him and lick the grease from my mouth.
Eventually I take his mouth in my hand and tell him to talk about the roses. He will always talk about the roses. It makes us both come faster so I can go lie on the ground.
When I come back she is dangling the roots of two marguerites a foot above the ground.
‘Airing the roots,’ she says, though there is no such thing. I am sure of it. I try to turn from her but she rises, dangling the roots. ‘Don’t you feel sorry for them stuck there sometimes?’
I do not. One cleft rhizome looks like her husband’s testicles and also like it might break. I put my hands under the roots. She holds them so the root strings tickle my palms, and she crouches with me when I lower my hands to the ground. She keeps her hands on mine while I rebury the roots of the marguerites but does not help.
She asks me if we can prune the ivy so we get the clippers and stepladder. I prune the ivy, and mostly she stands on the stepladder.
Under the foxglove the master gardener’s wife climbs on top of me and stretches out.
I know she’d rather we lie on the roof of the shed or the trellised top of the gazebo. I am surprised she doesn’t suggest it. I have seen her on top of the gazebo alone, precarious in the wind that blows around and under her through the crossed slats. Sometimes she stands and puts up her arms.
This is how she stood when I first saw her, after waking one morning with my back sunk wet in the ground. At first I mistook her for a statue. Then a suicide. After half an hour she climbed down.
Her ribs jab into my ribs, not fitting into the spaces between them like two thin people’s ribs are said to do when they are lovers. The dahlia on the shoulder of her dress presses into my face and I know the bottom of my ribs must push into her stomach uncomfortably, but still she rocks a little and hums a song, holding her arms and legs up off the ground.
I have not known the master gardener’s wife long before she wakes me with stilts. ‘Noam! Noam!’ she shouts. Holding onto the gazebo with one hand, she jabs me with a stilt. It doesn’t look fully strapped onto her foot. She wobbles on a bent knee above the other stilt. I see the base of it sinking into ground with the gladiolus roots.
I get up in time to catch her as she falls forward. ‘Ha ha!’ she says. I can’t imagine how she got onto the stilts in the first place. One pins a fallen bloom into the dirt and it sticks up around the base like a pink lace ruff.
She has fixed another gladiolus bloom to the shoulder of her dress. It too wobbles precariously, stabbed and held.
‘I got on them from the railing but I forgot to string the rope! The man said it was imperative to string the rope. He was a very gruff funny man. Aren’t they beautiful?’ She shakes a stilt at me.
As I string the rope for her she tells me all about the new little shop, how it looks like an old shop and if she didn’t go walking in town every day she might have thought she had just missed it before. Inside are all kinds of wonderful things, she says. Pogo sticks, remote-controlled birds, tree house kits, toy fairies with a string you pull to send them flying.
I used to go walking in the town, looking for gardens. I would have left such a shop immediately, if I’d accidentally gone in.
‘There were little bottles of clouds you shake up and open, and then the clouds come out and get bigger, and you can watch them go up with the regular clouds and float away. But the man was all, these are things with which you must take care and do not get carried away, and I really can’t see how he began to run a toy shop! But I’m glad he did. Even if he sounded so stilted, ha!’
The slack in the rope is beautiful, arching toward the grass that arches with its own summer weight, but she tells me to pull it taut.
‘You wouldn’t want me to fall on the ground, would you!’
She moves from back and forth from tree to gazebo by holding onto the rope with one hand and my shoulders with the other. The stilts scrape the backs of my ankles but she doesn’t notice. When this grows easy I get out of the way and sit on the ground, pressing my scrapes into the grass.
‘Oh! Ah ha ha!’ she says with both hands on the rope. She doesn’t fall or even really stumble. When she reaches the tree, she says, ‘Oh Noam!’ as if I haven’t been looking, watching for her hands to meet the trunk that will ground her again, thinking about lightning and clouds and how the stilts, though made of wood, are nothing like the tree or any part of the garden at all.
My room in the garden has a glass temperature gauge, a small tub with soap, and a settee. The master gardener’s wife brings me pillows and quilts. The backs of the quilts are all brown, and I use them outside when the ground is too cold or damp for sleeping otherwise. At first I thought she chose them with this use in mind, but then I made out the patterns of their colored tops, hot air balloons.
She told me the room I keep was supposed to be a guest bedroom, but the guests were often unsettled by the walls, on which slugs and caterpillars tend to collect. Most guests stay in the many extra rooms of the house, and I only occasionally see them in the garden, walking hand-in-hand with the master gardener or the master gardener’s wife.
‘I wouldn’t want the responsibility,’ she said once when I asked her why she settles for the title of the master gardener’s wife. She has equal share in the garden and tends to the climbing things. She too could be a master gardener. I could be a lover of master gardeners and no one else.
‘I don’t want a title,’ she explained, ‘like you, Noam. Like how you aren’t tied down.’
Every time she pulls up a plant to air its roots she uncovers another bone. In this but only this way the stilts are better.
I refer not to have to rebury the bone and think about the reasons it might be there, not out of place in the ground, exactly, but not reasonable, either. There are too many bones in the ground for any to be reasonable, unless the garden was once a cemetery or animal dumping-ground. I don’t know how to distinguish between human and animal bones, if that can be done.
Maybe before the master gardener and his wife were even born, the owner of the garden had a cook who remembered that all meats are animals and followed an otherwise forgotten religion of reuniting the meat bones with the earth. This was meant to honor both the animals and the earth.
I prefer not to think about the bones, though, in case they got into the garden by any other means, and because they no longer benefit the garden, too stripped to feed plants or worms but only getting in the way of their digging.
‘I hardly have to do any work at all, ha!’ says the master gardener. He pinches the stems of the phlox I’ve transplanted as if they are flesh and he is hungry but patient. He is the type of man called an eater.
‘But you know to watch for the dot moth,’ he says.
I like him most when he reminds me the health of the garden is the most important factor in any of our lives. I know all about the dot moth, I assure him.
‘Of course you do!’ He pinches my cheekbone and leaves. I sit down beside the phlox and watch one purplish larva hump its way up a stem he did not pinch. It moves carefully over the bumps in the stem, stopping at each leaf but moving forward. It has not yet found a place it wants to eat. I feel proud of the dot moth larva for its care in choosing.
I move it to the nasturtium before it can find a place it loves. I do not want to disappoint it. On the nasturtium it will eat and cause less damage, and it will have fewer other creatures for competition, as the nasturtium drives most away. Not the dot moth.
The master gardener lifts me on top of him while we are having sex. He does not let go of my thighs. ‘Nice soft thighs, like thighs should be,’ he says, even though the soft parts are meager and he’s mostly holding bone. I understand. I have also felt his wife’s thighs growing stiffer and knobby since she brought home the stilts.
I focus on the rose petals in his bed, which he refreshes every time he invites me in, as is done for illicit lovers. He fills his bed with them when he is with his wife, too, and when he is alone. He is the kind of man to spare no petals.
The petals are my favorite part of him, though I can’t help remembering how many more there are in his garden.
I have never been skilled with knots and mine never hold tight for more than a day, so every morning I tighten the rope between the tree and the gazebo for the master gardener’s wife. Against my inclinations I do not let it go fully slack until she no longer needs it.
Now she stilts everywhere around the garden, over and through the asters, lobelia, snapdragons, zinnias, carmel daisies, larkspur, hyacinth, bleeding hearts, fritillaries, periwinkle, amaryllis, pennywort, morning glory, lantanas, trillium, candytufts, sundrops, bellflowers, veronica, ruellias, and roses. I follow her from plant to plant, trimming and straightening while she stabs small holes in the ground.
I am bunching mulch around the base of the ruby wedding rose when she tries to stilt over the slack rope between the tree and the gazebo. I do not see whether her stilt catches on the rope or she misjudges the length of step she can take without becoming unbalanced, but I see very clearly how her left leg twists above the stilt and how she falls sideways onto the tiny weathervane sticking out from the gazebo pole.
She doesn’t fall any further. When I remove her from the pole, the spire at the top of the weathervane comes out of her shoulder and the pointy-beaked face of the iron rooster comes out of her chest, though his waddle catches. She has screamed but now she does a half laugh, ‘Ach ha! Huh ha ah ha,’ and clutches at her neck and breasts without touching the wounds. Her hands get bloody anyway and she puts them on mine.
‘Ah huh,’ she says and dies. I’m not sure what to do, but her small body is surprising heavy leaning on me, heavier than it is when she lies on top of me and pretends to be flying, so I lay her on the ground and take off her stilts. They look harmless horizontal. She doesn’t.
A different sort of fluid than blood has begun to come out of the rooster head hole, more viscous and clearer, and it moves around the blood in beads. I can see the side of a bone deep at the edge of the hole. I don’t know what bone it is, but I feel implicated in it.
I take a quilt, a shovel, and a trowel from my room. I wrap her in the quilt brown-side-in, but I keep her head out so she doesn’t look so dead. She looks garish with a body of bright balloon patterning, and I tell her she would prefer for the balloon pattern against her skin. Because it is what she prefers, I unwrap her and roll her off again, even though her arms keep catching and making it difficult.
There are spots of blood on the brown side now but it doesn’t stand out much. She doesn’t really stand out from the mulch, now that the balloons are gone.
I uproot the roses closest to her. The good as gold, fruhlingsmorgen, and purple tiger roses are getting their roots aired. I look at her face, but of course it doesn’t change. I come across four bones in my digging, two long thin ones, a round knob, and a thick tube. Bones are buried in this garden. I am doing what is to be done. When I put her in the hole, I lay her head right beneath the ruby wedding rose and pin its largest flower to the shoulder of her dress. The nosegay of violets it replaces has been bloodied and torn by the weathervane.
I have nothing to hide in the death of the master gardener’s wife, but the roses hide her well. The mulch lies in piles indistinguishable from the piles before, except for the stirring of the beetles, which sadly I know no one will notice but me.
‘Have you seen my wife?’ the master gardener asks me while I am lying on top of him. His arms are around me but he is looking out the window.
‘I last saw her in the garden, stilting around the gazebo,’ I begin.
‘Always on that damn gazebo!’ He laughs a sad laugh.’ I used to worry she’d fall off. But she said no, she’d just fly away. She always told me she was prone to flying away, she’d be up in the sky without a moment’s notice and gone and she’d never come back. She made me promise that was OK before she’d marry me.’
He’s been growing harder since he pulled me on top of him, and now he fucks me energetically. His eyes are shut. There is no pause in which I might continue my story.
His rose petals are all white today. None of them are from the roses whose roots are aired. In the garden I check them thoroughly, in case they have become insufficient, but I cannot find anything wrong with them.
I dig more carefully now and avoid hitting bones. When I do unearth one I make sure to replace it exactly where it lay before. I cannot be sure why any one bone is there.
This means that some of the transplants do not line up as they should or form perfect arcs, but the master gardener is too distracted to notice. He walks a variety of women around the garden, pointing to various blooms but watching the women’s hands or shoes. He does not speak to me on these walks, though sometimes the woman herself will nod toward me, causing the berries or flowers pinned above the brim of her hat to wobble and flash in the sun. It has been very sunny since the master gardener’s wife flew away.
Soon the number of women dwindles and the frequency with which he walks each around the garden increases. He is only courting six women. He is only courting four.
The one who lasts the longest wears a loathsome pursed mouth with hardly any lips, but she is the tiniest and owns the largest hats, and the master gardener is excited by such contrasts. Also she never wears heels or reaches for things above the height of her head.
I am glad he does not bother me now. I am so busy tending to the roses, which are growing faster and larger than I’ve ever seen them grow before. There are so many blooms the bushes are bending and the climbers are fanning out to all sides. I pick the most problematic blooms and basket them up for the master gardener’s bed.
There is to be a wedding in the garden, which means people with portable arbors, tables, chairs, hanging silks, camera stands, and notebooks traipse through and on the garden. The master gardener hires assistant gardeners to clean up after them and bring in new climbing plants for the arbors. Some of the plants won’t live past the wedding. I can tell.
The master gardener seems to know all the assistant gardeners. He calls them by their first names or nicknames and has a servant bring them beer and lunches. They too ruin the garden.
I go around behind them straightening caught branches and sweeping mulch kicked by their large leather boots. They pay no attention to me. I take up little room.
The fiancée has noticed me, though, and a week before the wedding the master gardener pulls me behind a temporary arbor and tells me he is letting me go.
‘She’ll be my wife and won’t let me have you. She says a master gardener should be the master of his garden. She won’t hear otherwise. I’ve got to have a wife so I have to let you go. When she takes vacations I’ll have you come,’ and that’s the end of it. One of the assistant gardeners is telling him to please taste the jam the servant just brought, because it is made of six types of flowers from this very garden. And boy is it incredible.
I wouldn’t know. There are many spoons but none come to me.
I have been living in the cemetery a week before he sends for me, and I only miss the garden. The cemetery is beautiful and far from town. Mourners rarely walk through. My house is old and small, just one room with a stove and bed. A brown quilt hangs on the wall.
I rarely spend any time in the room. I like to watch the carefully organized stones and notice when people bring cut flowers.
Though most of the flowers are planted, and mine.
When the master gardener’s wife is away on vacations, which she takes often with female friends to tropical locations, expressing dissatisfaction with the master gardener or his work, he sends a servant to fetch me and I go. After he lifts me above his rose-strewn bed, he lets me visit the garden and choose a plant.
I was right. The climbers transplanted for the wedding all died.
I only take perennials. I am transplanting a rose onto every grave. No one new is buried here, so I know exactly how many more I need, though I will never finish going to the garden. Every time I go, I get a piece.
I have taken his best roses for the dead with the best epitaphs. The ruby wedding rose has grown largest in the row of earth where the stone reads She loved the earth, my, and the rest is rubbed clean.