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Master Fairchild’s Garden

by Patrick Creek

One spring morning, cold, damp, and clear, Master Samuel Fairchild was at work in his garden. He was rooting among the shrubbery, uncovering tubers of twisted shape, exhuming worms and writhing things, subterranean treasures that had never seen the light. A black-shelled centipede scrambled up the handle of his spade, and he flicked it away: landing, bouncing, curling, then uncoiling, legs trembling, it rushed under a thistle and was gone.

Fairchild planted his shovel in the dark earth, splitting a worm. He breathed, deeply, slowly, as if he aimed to empty his lungs; with grimy fingers he rubbed his forehead. There seemed to be a buzzing, not heard but directly perceived within the brain: such a buzzing as a thousand quiet arguments might make. If he concentrated, it faded, yet it would return as soon as his mind wandered.

The cottager resumed gardening. Now the sound seemed to flow around and harmonise with the scuffle of upturned dirt, and there came a time when he was not sure if he did not dig merely to join the song. And it was a song, not a speech. It had — growing stronger, richer — individual ‘voices’, some deep, some high, agitated, calm, frequent, sparse, yet these were only voices as one might say the flute speaks, or the cello. One instrument was loudest: Fairchild heard it boom and had a sudden wish to raise his shovel and dash open his head. Its tones were of command, and when it thundered, each disputant fell silent.

He felt — no, he knew, for the song was wrapped around his consciousness — that the flock was moving. It had clustered beneath his left temple: now it was rushing towards the hindbrain. His head reeled, the chant grew boisterous; there came a pop, and Fairchild fell forwards. He saw only stalks of grass and darkness, but the squirrel, whose eye is sharpest of the woodland beasts, marked a shimmer passing from the cottager to the cottage. It barked alarm and sprang.

* * *

Once more, Master Fairchild laboured in his garden, forcing the earth to yield its stock of hidden things. The sun had risen a little higher, and his tubby, stooped figure grew under its gaze until he seemed fit to stand beside kings: the duck feather on his pork-pie hat blazed like a phoenix’s plume, and his grey hairs, gilded, could have been an emperor’s wreath. All his brain throbbed, and he could not remember why. He had forgotten — had he forgotten? At once it seemed there was nothing to forget.

Perhaps impulse alone made Fairchild look to his cottage, and the bedroom windows that shone with the light of the trapped sun, or perhaps habit: what is important is that he looked. Then a shy smile — a bachelor’s smile, as if he were not fifty and long married — crept across his face. He could see his Jenny’s nightgowned form wavering against the window. Her cap was lost, and her pale hair flowed freely. She shook; her hands stretched out, pleading; she fell. A moment later the swarm shot through.

Then there should have been broken glass, or blood, or at least a scream, but he heard no sound but the buzzing. On came the shimmer, a visible cessation of reality, becoming faster, louder, more unbearable. Dumb and wondering, he gazed, and gazing saw something he knew: a human body, with arms, legs, a shrieking head, yet never all these at once. For the woman was wrapped in something sightless, from which she might receive temporary, partial liberation, yet never escape.

The windowpane was unbroken. He saw this through the coming song, even through his captured wife. The world went on as usual: magpies chattered in the treetops, rabbits nosed in the earth, and somewhere, panicked, a pheasant burst its lungs and ran. What came was not natural, but imposed upon nature, embossed, another layer of Being. Old Fairchild did not delay in philosophical speculation. He drew his shovel from the earth, hefted it, and threw.

Three times the weapon spun, three times shedding lice, leafmould and dirt. After the third rotation, it struck: the shimmer vanished, and the hubbub split. Now they were visible, the wild company, and terrible, leering and grimacing, growling and yowling. They scattered in frustrated, crying fury, the little men, on snails, crickets, stag-beetles and moths; they made for the dark places, the cold, damp, hidden places, under eaves and leaves and in hollows of the speechless earth. They seethed away like the maddened tide sinking into dry sand and were gone.

Only their king did not hide. He was — a finger-length? an arm-length? man-size? gigantic, as if a high hill or beetling peak? Fairchild did not know, nor ever could say. And yet he knew this: the stranger could be called nothing but a dwarf; it was impossible to consider him anything more than an unfinished thing. His boyish face was whitened with chalk, his pert mouth strawberry red, and his eyes and hair stormcloud grey. He hovered before Fairchild, perched upon a great flapping screech-owl, his shape eternally indistinct.

The elf-king made a haughty gesture with his right hand, digging in his spurs; with the left he reached out and snatched Fairchild’s hat, cramming it onto his own lumpy head. Then the owl soared forward through the old man’s skull, leaving in his memory laughter: a malicious sniggering glee which he would recall sometimes in the small hours of the morning, though the day had passed into the black mouth of Time and was forgotten with all its works. On such days, Fairchild would go to the window, gaze upon his garden laced with the silver moon, and know why the wolf howls. But that came later.

With the splitting of the elf-host, a woman’s body had tumbled onto the grass. She was in a white nightgown, and her loose hair wrapped her head and neck like a wimple. Here and there spare threads streaked away, grey twining with green. Fairchild had a notion of maggots, of decay and rot, and momentarily he did not know whether he saw his wife, or the charnel bride of Death.

“Jenny,” said he, dropping to his knees. “Jen, Jennifer, Jenny. Can you hear? Can you speak? Do you know me, Jenny?”

The woman turned over, and her limbs twitched rhythmically, as if she danced to a far-off pipe. Then she vomited blue.

“Of course I know you, Samuel Fairchild,” she said, wiping her mouth.

* * *

He helped her to her feet, and she leaned on him, he leaned on her. Together, they tottered from the garden, leaving the shovel with its iron blade smoking on the lawn. Grass grew there no more. They walked through the birdsong and the murmur of spring, over stones and tiles, until they came to the red door opening onto the kitchen and went inside. Whatever traces of memory lingered were shut out with the closing of that door.

Jenny sagged into a chair, and Sam, scarcely stronger, staggered to fill her a mug of ale. He had one himself, of course. They were sipping, and talking of mundane things, corners to be dusted, maids to be hired, cheeses to be sold, when the ceiling above — it was the floor of their bedroom — creaked, and they heard a series of blundering bumps.

“A bird,” he told his wife, reassuringly.

“Birds do not walk,” Jenny replied, “and the window — they never opened it.”

Sam Fairchild did not ask who they were: knowledge was unnecessary for fear. He took a knife from the sideboard, and bustling, that activity might displace thought, climbed the stairs to their bedroom.

“Who is it?” he called, to no reply. Who is it, is it, it echoed in the corridor. The noise had stopped: so far from this calming him, he now feared ambush. Carefully, almost waddling to avoid the creakier floorboards, he moved to the door. It was a crack ajar. Placing one moist, elderly eye to the gap, he scanned the room as best he could. A bed, sheets rumpled. One rocking-chair still nodding. A mirror, cloudy, as if misted by breath. No. There was something in the bed.

Jenny Fairchild had just risen and gone to seek her husband when he came, tumbling, rattling down the stairs, to crumple at her feet. He rose, went to pat his head where his pork-pie hat had been, and looked confused. Then, turning to face her — even his whiskers were askew, and his left eye was rolling — he blathered out: “You won’t guess what I’ve seen, Jenny, lass.”

And she could not, so he took her gently by the hand. Together, they stumbled through cobwebbed stairs and corridors to their bedroom.

* * *

It wore the face of Jenny Fairchild like a bad mask. There were her smile-wrinkles around the eyes, her burn-mark on the right cheek, her nose broken in wayward youth; there was her brittle grey hair, and her lined, spotted forehead. The eyelids were retracted, and its cloudy eyeballs swirling, but the chest did not rise and fall, all blood vessels had sunk into the spongy flesh, and there was no heartbeat.

“Food,” croaked the woman-thing in the bed. It said nothing more, although its mouth sagged open like a baby bird’s. They brought it garden produce: purple carrots and leafy vegetables, onions freshly skinned.

“Food,” it repeated, and they had to place the first mouthful onto the lolling lower lip. Its jaws dropped like a guillotine: one half of the onion was displaced into the bedclothes, the other crunched and chewed and mushed.

“Pfagh,” it said, and spat liquid onion. “Food.” And it would not eat the carrots, nor the leaves, nor the tubers. She fetched a cheese from the dairy, he brought strips of beef, and then it ate, hungrily, crunching and chewing and mushing, until the meal was gone. And once more the mouth fell open lazily, and from its depths came the refrain: “Food.”

Sam Fairchild looked at his wife, and she him.

“There’s a ham in the outhouse,” he acknowledged.

“Husband,” she said, “get the parson.”

He came fresh from the foxhunt, this Reverend Willoughby, red fur and blood down his cassock. He came in company, his curate yapping at his heels, and two hounds just as subservient. There was an indulgent, unbelieving smile across his young lordly face, and perhaps a smidgen of curiosity: this vulgar error would undoubtedly be one for the antiquaries. Mostly he came with the Cross.

“And, goodman,” the parson asked, standing just before the door, “how exactly — you can tell me, good my man, we’re all sinners before God, eh? — how exactly did the woman come to be in your bed?”

“I was working in my garden,” Fairchild began, and stopped. The feeling of memory pressed upon him without its knowledge. Three times he intoned “I”, stammered, and subsided. “There’s a woman in my bed,” he ended: dubiously, as if he did not believe it himself.

“Well,” replied the parson, looking first to his dogs and then to his vicar for approval, “we’ll have to have it out all at once, good fellow. But of that more later. Who is the woman?”

Sam Fairchild, poor man, scratched his bald patch — where on earth had his pork-pie hat gone? — screwed up his already-furrowed forehead, and thought. “My wife?” he at last ventured.

The priest howled with laughter, and his three beasts with him. The magpies had returned, hopping over the gables of Fairchild’s cottage and scolding; now, spooked, they took wing and glided away.

“Your wife,” declared the parson, winking at a dog. “That’s a new one. Here’s to discovery!”

Beaming, genial, magnanimous, he sprang over the threshold. At once there was a shriek upstairs that carried him back to childhood: to nurse’s tales, rawhead-and-bloody-bones, horrors of the sleepless night. For the first time in years, Reverend Willoughby clasped the cross around his neck, with fingers as white as mother’s milk.

* * *

He did not know what to do, this parson, and the curate was no better. Sunlight cast their shadows against the wall, and the wind flurried against the window; inside the bedroom the woman-thing screamed and raged and fought. Sam Fairchild did not know how he could ever have believed it was Jenny. In motion, all similarity was gone, all humanity. This was a beast that whirled and wailed.

“I...” began the parson, and his words choked in his throat. Three times he tried to pray and failed, sweating his collar darker, his hands white. He fumbled with the Cross.

Diabole,” the curate murmured. He strove to raise his voice, and it came out a reedy screech. “Abjuro te!

Stronger now, the wind beat against the window, bringing air from the forests and the wilds. Stronger, the changeling thrashed and struggled in their bed. Samuel Fairchild was thinking. The outside world was dull; dimmed, he felt. What did it amount to? So much spilt spittle? He could feel the wind trying to get through the window, much as a fly tries to get out: banging its head, and banging, and banging, until either the pane gave, or its strength was lost.

There was something about the window that was familiar to him, something about the lawn beyond, still tinged with the last of the nocturnal dew. Yes, that was it: he had been digging there that very morning, and seen Jenny waving from the window. Surely he had? Faster the wind rapped against the windowpane.

In nomine patris, et filii, et...

Samuel Fairchild walked across the room, avoiding the foaming intruder, the gabbling priests, their crazed dogs, and his dear wife; he unlatched the window. It swung back and dashed his hand against the wall: inwards, rushing, blowing hats from heads and trinkets from shelves, whisked the wind.

Now his vision blurred, and he saw things which could not be. For from the perspective of his right eye, the woman-thing still lay on the bed, unmoving; yet from the left it had stood — almost risen like a bird on a thermal. And he saw pale faces beyond the windowpane, and sharp-nailed hands beckoning; while in his left eye the changeling spread its wings, calling to its folk.

At last the parson cried out and uplifted the Cross. There came a shiver, a shimmer, an indraught of air: the window slammed, and their visitor was gone.

* * *

Gone of a sort: they found, afterwards, something in the covers, a thing neither alive nor dead. For humans and animals die — it is the price they pay for living — while rocks and stones, rivers and oceans, do not. This object was not dead, for it had never lived. They buried it in the garden, and the parson dug.

And after that, quietly, hungrily, the four of them ate the ham, slice by steaming slice. Reverend Willoughby no longer wore the aristocratic carelessness appropriate to a squire’s third son; there was something in the tension of his jawline, the wild sadness of his eyes, that suggested the ascetic. Occasionally he would toss a scrap of meat onto the Fairchilds’ newly-mopped floor, and look bewildered when no dog came. The curate would, muttering something about waste, stoop to salvage. He seemed, especially when chewing, to be chanting under his breath.

“What tidy parishioners the Fairchilds are, Snooks,” mused the parson, as they stumbled from the cottage, arm in arm. His eyes were glazed. “I really think I should visit again sometime. Why were we there today, do you know?”

The curate screwed up his face in thought. “The garden?” he hazarded.

“Yes, yes. What a cleanly people! What industry! What respectable folk!”

They turned the corner simply because there was a corner to turn and left by completely the wrong road. The last we see of the parson is him fiddling with the cross.

* * *

Now Master Fairchild was at work in his garden again. The sun had begun its fall from high heaven, the afternoon passing in a golden dream. He forced his shovel into the black earth, and uncovered spadeful after spadeful of forgotten soil, rich in memories, traditions, and wriggling things. He was thinking that he had thought something: what it had been, he did not know. The flowerheads watched him, and the birds, and the wind that blows all over the earth.

Once more Fairchild scooped. He was thinking about his missing pork-pie hat, and his garden, and Jenny who pleading a headache had gone early to bed. He thought he heard a buzzing, but it was only a bumblebee.

Copyright © 2020 by Patrick Creek

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