Beth’s Garden

by Joanna M. Weston

part 1 of 2


Jimmy lay on his back on the lawn, his eyes half-closed against the August sun. He felt relaxed and at peace with his future, if not with his father who loomed over his life as an occasionally benign despot. A tax-lawyer, he had always directed Jimmy towards a legal career, wanting Jimmy to think and earn as he did. He had been furious at Jimmy’s choice of a biology major when Jimmy started university in Victoria. He accepted it, grudgingly, now that Jimmy had completed an Honours B.Sc..

Jimmy smiled contentedly as the scent of roses drifted to him on a warm shift of air. It reminded him of Beth Walpole’s garden with butterflies and bees dancing in sunlight.

He wondered idly if the garden, which lay on the other side of woods, beyond the field next door, had changed. He used to spy on Beth as she pottered there, humming to herself. Jimmy had a vague memory of Beth Walpole’s arrival fifteen or twenty years ago, after the previous owner had disappeared.

He rolled onto his stomach and studied the grass, dry and brown after weeks of heat. He touched his face to the grass momentarily, smelled the warmth of the soil, enjoying the feel of the earth down the length of his long thin body. He had spent June and July traveling with friends and returned to live for a while with his parents. He started work in a few days at the research lab six kilometers away. He would soon start looking for his own place to live.

An ant ran across his outstretched finger; he watched it scuttle into the grass and weave its way between the blades.

“James, you’re to cut the grass this afternoon,” Father said from where he sat with Mother in the shade of the verandah that wrapped the back of the house.

“I’ll do it this evening, Father.” Jimmy stood up and stretched, the afternoon peace broken and lost. Irritation crawled, like the heat, on his skin. Had Father always commanded rather than requested? Did he ever say ‘please’? Why did he have to call him ‘James’, not ‘Jimmy’ as everyone else did?

“You’ll do it this afternoon, James. Rain is forecast for this evening.”

Jimmy looked up at the clear sky, pale with heat, and made a face. “It’s too hot and there’s not a cloud to be seen.”

“Not too hot to do as I ask,” Father said.

“It’s the hottest time of the day, and bad for the grass to be cut in the heat,” Jimmy replied.

“You will cut the grass this afternoon... without argument.”

Jimmy sighed. Anger and rebellion stirred within him as he turned towards the garden shed.

“And you shouldn’t be out in the sun without a hat. You’ll get sunstroke,” his mother called.

Jimmy clenched his fists in the pockets of his shorts. “Yes, Mother.”

He wanted to add ‘I’m twenty-four and old enough to look after myself.’

“I’ll bring you one.”

“Don’t bother, Mother, I’m okay.”

“Then stay in the shade, dear.”

He flushed with anger, thinking, ‘They treat me like a two-year-old! I absolutely will not cut the grass this afternoon. Who cares if it rains? The ground needs it.’

He went to the shade of the garden shed, and stood for a minute. He shrugged and, avoiding the raked path and painted gate, slipped through the hedge: he would go and look at Beth Walpole’s garden.

His parents called Beth ‘weird’, and spoke of her with scorn, though they never saw her and never went near the woods. People said Beth stayed on her own property. Jimmy didn’t see anything strange about that; some people liked to stay home. Jimmy’s parents said she didn’t buy anything from the village store.

Jimmy had heard rumours of people stealing through the shadows at dusk to consult with Beth, leaving a loaf or a jug on her doorstep. People, they said, tapped softly on her door, spoke with her, and left with a vial or a sachet in their pocket. No one talked about it openly, but whispers went round.

The legend was that whoever lived there was a healer of sorts, who never left the garden, who would never leave the place at all until she died. Father believed in doctors and Western medical science and snorted with disgust at such stories being told of someone in his neighbourhood.

Jimmy jumped the ditch. He had a fleeting memory of childhood expeditions when he had wriggled under the hedge to an imaginary kingdom, himself a knight-errant, or an escapee from bondage vile. He stopped to listen as a robin sang from the garage roof and chickadees chirped from the hedgerow.

A breeze rustled the grass, chasing lazy shadows across the field in front of him. He listened for his parents but couldn’t hear them. Father would have gone back to reading tax-law, ever alert to find loopholes; Mother would be doing the fine white embroidery that she used, when he was a child, to embroider his name on his clothes.

He crossed the field and entered the sultry shadows of the woods, wishing his parents knew the beauty of nature. The woods had been his escape from the rules laid down by his father, the place where he could play and explore as he wanted. He paused to run his hands over moss on a fallen tree trunk, to watch a squirrel leaping and chattering high in a maple tree.

His childhood kingdom held him again. He was a fugitive from tyranny, or a scout adventuring to foreign lands, seeking treasure. The squirrels were guides, the birds his army. He shrugged and smiled as he remembered peering at Beth from the shelter of huge sword ferns. The sense of loss when he started school returned to him, how he had felt pulled away from the wonder of the garden.

He had not been near it for years. Father had made sure Jimmy was fully occupied once he started school, with little time for play. Beth Walpole and her garden belonged to the past, one of the mysteries of childhood, left behind and never regained.

Jimmy walked into nostalgia this hot summer day. He straightened his shoulders, heard a twig crack behind him and glanced over his shoulder, half-expecting to see Father striding after him. There was no one.

He noticed a drift of salal, a rise of deer ferns, and clumps of ocean spray with flowers gone to seed. He saw the smooth pale trunk of an arbutus with its red bark peeling away. A long curly piece lay on layers of decayed leaves; he picked it up and rubbed it between his fingers until it crumbled.

Jimmy saw the roof and chimney of Beth’s cabin through the trees and crouched down. For a moment he was again a refugee foraging for food beyond enemy lines, snaking between outposts and sentries. He chuckled softly.

The garden, deserted and shadowed, beckoned him. The smell of warm earth and herbs hung on the air. He sidled past a hawthorn bush. No fence or hedge contained the garden; it blended into the surrounding maples, firs, and cedars, its flowers and shrubs merging into the wildness of the woods. It had made the perfect centre of his childhood kingdom.

He hoped Beth was busy elsewhere, that he could look at, and study, the plants as he wandered through the vegetable garden. Carrots, chard, lettuce, radishes, beetroot, and other vegetables he recognized, some he had not seen grown in the area before.

A pale green caterpillar curled on a cabbage. He picked it off, and placed it gently on a dock leaf. He pulled a carrot, wiped the dirt off on his shorts and nibbled at it, enjoying the natural flavour.

A black cat emerged from under rhubarb leaves, sniffed his legs, and stalked away round the side of the cedar log cabin. Jimmy followed.

“And who are you?” A woman spoke from the shadows by the cabin.

Jimmy dropped the carrot.

She was taller than he remembered or expected, but her body bulked large.

She came forward into the daylight. Her cotton shirt was worn and faded, her long skirt hung crooked and neatly patched. “An intrepid adventurer, I think.”

Jimmy stood his ground though he had a childish urge to turn and run. He hoped his bearded face and pony-tail looked non-threatening.

Then she smiled, and Jimmy blinked, for her smile would brighten a dark night.

He pointed to the half-eaten carrot which lay between them. “I took it,” he said, “from your garden.”

“At least you’re honest,” she said. “Why are you here?”

“I came because of the butterflies.”

She frowned. “My butterflies are my butterflies and are not to be killed.”

Jimmy thrust his hands in his pockets. “Killing definitely not intended.”

“Do you have a name?” she asked. Her voice rasped deep in her throat.

“Jimmy McKinly.”

“And I’m Beth Walpole.” She held out her hand and Jimmy shook it hesitantly. A quiver of heat ran up his arm; a surge of something incomprehensible moved through his body.

Jimmy looked directly into dark brown eyes set in a broad sallow face, the skin too tightly stretched, and grey-brown hair in two long braids.

“Well, Jimmy McKinly, what would you like to do in my garden?”

“Look at your herbs, where the butterflies are.”

Beth studied him carefully. “You’re interested in herbs?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know anything about them?”

“Only from texts and what I’ve seen in local gardens.”

“Herbs bring healing to sick people and can change the way they think about things.”

“I’d like to change the way the Orgs think about me.”

“Who and what are the Orgs?”

Jimmy blushed and hung his head. It was his childhood word for his parents, private and secret; he had slipped back into his long-ago world. He scuffed the ground with sandaled feet. He had never, ever, told anyone his name for them.

“’Orgs?’ People who organize?” Beth studied his face. “Parents?”

Jimmy froze.

“So. It seems I have a free spirit here, one who likes to walk his own road.”

Jimmy heard strength in her voice and an understanding that caused the hair on his neck to prickle. He looked at her from under lowered eyelids and stayed silent.

“You’d like them to relax and not bother you?”

“Yes.” Jimmy shifted his shoulders.

“Nothing to be ashamed of in that,” she said, “I can’t stand people fretting at what I do.”

Jimmy raised his head and found she was regarding him intently. A thin smile curled her lips.

“Their garden is all square lawn and borders,” he said.

She chuckled hoarsely. “I can see the problem.”

“Your garden goes every which way.”

“Not quite.” She turned. “Come and see.”

She led him round the side of the cabin to where the bees and butterflies sang over the plants.

“This garden is square,” she pointed out, “but see the path that winds through it.”

A well-trodden path wound in a curious pattern among the shrubs and flowers. Jimmy stepped onto it and walked slowly through the plants: it was like following the secret ways of his kingdom. The herbs reached out to him, their leaves caressed his skin and their perfume washed him in pleasure.

“It’s cunning,” he said at last, turning to Beth from the other side.

“A good word. And now you are held by the path.”

“What do you mean?”

“Can you leave?”

“Of course!” Jimmy came back to Beth and stepped away from the garden.

“But can you leave the herbs? Not come back to them?”

Jimmy looked over the garden. His eyes roved the flowers; the colours and scents floated to him vividly. Yet each perfume filled him separately, each plant imprinted itself individually on his mind. Their history flooded him with knowledge, secrets of their uses seeped into his consciousness.

“I’ll remember them,” he said.

“The garden is yours. Come when you’re ready,” Beth murmured.

“There’s no fence to your garden.”

“I’m the only one that needs a fence.”

“What do you mean?”

“I look after the garden. And I don’t leave.”

“You stay here always?” Jimmy absent-mindedly reached out and stroked the leaves of a plant.

“You could say that.” She paused. “Take a leaf, that’s sage. It’s for immortality.”

He pulled his hand back quickly.

“Touch as you will. The garden has you. You will come back.” She laughed deep to her belly.

Jimmy turned and went quickly, almost running, from the garden.

“You’ll be back.” Beth’s laughter trailed after him.

He slowed deep in the woods.

What had he run from? Was it the sense of hands reaching out to hold him, to keep him? He wondered if his childhood kingdom was more of a reality than he had realized. He brushed his hands over his head, down his shoulders, over his body, trying to sweep away the sense of tendrils pulling at him, something catching him in a web. The world his parents wanted for him of security and conformity loomed large in his mind.

Father’s voice rang in his head, “Weird woman... have nothing to do with her... quite beyond the pale... undesirable...”

The scent of flowers trailed in the air.

He laughed nervously, looked around, hoping no one had seen or heard him. A crow cawed in the distance, a squirrel peered at him from a nearby tree.

In elementary school he had been teased for knowing plants, holding them gently, knowing their names, and for talking to them. But the teasing had changed to acceptance in high school, and an obscure pride, as he won the biology prize year after year.

He had few friends: Father had turned people away, tried to keep Jimmy in his regulated world, failing to understand his affinity for the earth, knowing nothing of it himself. But Beth had opened the garden to him and the garden had welcomed him.

He sat down, leaned his back against a tree trunk, pushed university and Father out of his mind, to think about the afternoon.

“Basil, chamomile, sage, calendula...” The words sang in his head and intrigued him. As he said each name aloud he could see each plant, smell its distinctive perfume, and sense the feel of its leaves. He had known herbs before, but not like this.

“I start my new job next week,” he said to the salal, “nothing stops that.”

A breeze sighed in the trees above him.

“Basil is for hatred and for love,” he told himself, “chamomile is for patience, nettles are for slander.” How did he know? A vast knowledge of them had come to him from Beth, from the garden, all in one afternoon.

He rubbed his fingers together wanting to feel the green of herbs against his skin again. Father’s world of job security, social position, and pension, held him back.

He stood up. Beth’s garden swirled in his veins, filled his imagination and memory. But a voice in his head told him that he was destined for a place in society, one that would satisfy his father. Nothing else would do: he had to conform. He went slowly home. Father knew what was best for him.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2011 by Joanna M. Weston

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