IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Gardener Mage
Sunday, July 12, 2708
"Once there lived a gardener," Damien says, poking a little life into the fire, "who could grow anything you wanted, when you wanted it, how you wanted it." We huddle close to the hearth with want in our hearts as achingly hungry as the wind outside, coughing on the mule-dung smoke while the blizzard howls like a lunatic all around our crowded little shelter and the roof groans under the weight of so much snow.
With a quiet little laugh, our bard says, "His master and all his master's relatives, of course, took it all for granted—the fruit out of season, the flowers that bloomed where their kind shouldn't grow, the pears the size of cantaloupes, the miniature sprays of roses for the dollhouse. They asked, he provided, and they came to comfortably expect that he would do their will, like it was easy or something, like they had some God-given right to the fulfillment of all whims."
Roses...pears...I bask in the memory of scented spring gardens and the sweet juices of fresh fruit, memories more softly warming than the harsh heat of the fire, that dries my face even as my backside quails from the cold.
"Now, you and I know that there had to be more to it than that, but we also know that the people of the manors and the townhouses have a certain stubbornness about not admitting to all that's real." His voice drops low in the snowbound dimness. "It had to do with magic.”
The firelight kindles weirdly in his eyes, and that strange curl of a smile bares flame-reddened teeth. "Oh yes, my brothers and sisters, he knew what to plant in the north and in the south, the east and the west. He knew where to find the real heart of the manor; he knew which paving-stones to lay there in a little gazebo straddling the crossing paths, he knew where to gather those stones and what tiny herbs and mosses to plant between the flags. He shaped the boughs that arched over that space; he bent them while still green from the withy-brook, and he wove their wands into curious shapes and knots with meaning to those who know. He understood the subtle ways to point the currents of power to that place, by pruning a branch here, training a vine there, shaping the curve of a reflecting pond, building little stone walls and terraces of crystal-bearing rock, and trellises intertwined with charms. The pretty things that he strung on branches, tinkling in the wind, or casting prisms all about, or just dangling like a fancy half-expressed, all these the rich imagined put up for their pleasure, but he had something else in mind. Hard he worked all day, every day, at his masters' behests, but late at night they could see him sitting all alone in that gazebo, lost in thought."
Damien glances wryly at the tight-bound shutters that strain to hold back snow, their cracks and crannies stuffed with every rag and scrap that we can muster. "They say that this garden even shaped the weather that blew over it, so that the wind bent where the gardener wanted it to bend, the rain fell when he willed and the sun shone as he chose. The trees could catch and redirect the clouds, they say. The little ornamental creeks could pull the very currents of the air. This, too, the masters of the manor took for granted; after awhile they dared to tell him what weather they wished for various occasions—they dared to say it without wonder in their hearts!"
We pass around a heated cup of honeyed homemade brandy mixed with herbs, to quell the cough that we all have developed from the blizzard chill and the foulness of the smoke. Damien's voice deepens when his turn comes around, as he tells us confidentially, "Of course you do know, my brothers and my sisters, that nothing comes of nothing." Yes, yes, we all say, wanting to hear more.
As if to change the subject he says, "Picture the gardener before you—ruddy, muscular, a gleam of power in his eye, his long hair as dark and rich as the soil that he tills, as glossy as a thoroughbred's. Picture the gentlemen of the manor, the master and all his many relatives, and all his guests—pallid and jade-eyed, sickly-thin or rolling-fat but none with any muscle to speak of, smelling of dusty old corners, with breath made foul from overwrought delicacies."
Damien chuckles. "Oh yes, the men with bloodlines could have their pick of high-bred brides, but there always came a moment when the ladies took from the gardener the wedding bouquets grown especially for them; from that instant, when they first brushed fingertips with his callous, brown hands, he could have them ever after, for a whistle under a balcony, or a seemingly chance-dropped apple rolling across their path." He glows in the golden light with that radiance of the adolescent who has encountered lust for the first time and fallen in love with it, for all of its aching, searing promise. "The gardener built hidden bowers, cunning in design, dripping flowers of intoxicating perfume, approached by wandering paths that twisted and turned in dizzying patterns to hypnotize the frail and oversheltered damsels—the ones compelled to follow those paths to their conclusion. No lady ever dwelt in or visited that manor that he didn't eventually have the pleasure to...meet."
He has to stop to cough. Immediately we press the medicinal cup back to him. One deep swallow; his eyes widen for just a moment, then Damien smiles again as though the shadows begin to sing.
"For awhile, anyway. Our gardener soon tired of the fainting ladies and their waxy skin, their slim yet flaccid thighs. He took for himself a wife—a brown and rosy woman of the same stock as himself, canny in her own ways of kitchen herbs and sewing-basket poppets, too sturdy for the tastes of the gentry but beautiful to him beyond anything his hands could grow, with magic or without—legs that could hold up the weight of the world if they had to, generous lips wrapped around a big, uncouth grin, cheeks as round and ruddy as the orchard's fruit. She made him happy like his masters never could. And in time she gave to him a son."
Kiril breaks into a coughing-fit so violent that it scares us all. It seems to go on and on, interrupting the tale. I lean her over my knees and pound upward on her back till she can dislodge the tough, green phlegm that alarms me more than I dare say. Rashid gives her the rest of the cup and I don't contradict him; though I know that it might do her as much harm as good, it might at least make her more comfortable. He then mixes up more and passes it around for the rest of us. And yes, the shadows do sing, dancing to the music hidden in the hearth.
At last I prompt, "He had a son..."
"A son as hearty and brown as the sons of privilege were wan and spindly," Damien tells us, "And he grew as fast and strong as if his father had rooted him in the life-rich soil of that place, watered him on clouds captured from the throne of God. And like his father before him, the son, too, came to spend much of his free time in the mysterious gazebo, listening to his father's soft voice that spoke of things the gentry never bothered to attend to. Or sometimes the two of them just sat together in seeming silence, though the air between them fairly crackled with something that not all there could perceive."
The cup comes around my way again. My cough seems to have quieted down, but I take a couple sips for prophylactic purposes. Tasty, in a weird sort of way. I frown; it seems that I have savored an herb-laced beverage in a fruit-based liqueur before...associated with magic? Oh Deirdre, your strange notions again!
Damien says, "Our gardener was not the only man on the property to have a son that day. The master, too, got himself an heir, born the very hour as the other child, but his wife died of the effort in her fine silk sheets, while the gardener's wife throve, hardly slowed after less than an hour's labor in a bower of the garden. The peasant-boy crowed out lustily the moment his mouth cleared his mother, while the fine-born child turned blue till they slapped a weak little cry from him.
"And so it went, from that point on," says Damien, his words a little fluid from the brandy, but enriched by subtleties of inflection and glance. "The child of the gardens throve and strengthened with every season, while the heir picked up every whisper of illness in the air, spent more than half his life propped up in bed, and watched life luxuriate in the gardens outside his window, beyond his reach. Soon jealousy wasted his soul more than sickness wasted his body—health squandered on the servants should be his by right, he thought."
Damien has to pause while several other children choke, though none as severely as Kiril did. We all sound like heirs of the manor, right now. "The heir never tired of making demands on the gardener and his son—twigs that grew into the shapes of kites that he hadn't the strength to fly, carrots that tasted like candy, trees that grew their own tree-houses—nothing possessed his imagination that struck him as too unreasonable to ask for, nor did the gardeners ever fail him. But with every gift he grew frailer and frailer still—and meaner and meaner with an all-consuming envy. In such a frame of mind and flesh he reached his teens."
"One moment," I interrupt. "Hand me that pack there, and those blankets." Kiril has nodded off against me. I prop her up and tuck her in so that she'll be able to breathe in her sleep. Lately her snores outdo Malcolm's.
"Everything okay?" Damien asks solicitously.
"Yeah. She'll be all right." I put my arm around her.
"Well, then. The heir. On one especially nice week, when he felt enough health to go out and about, he insisted that the gardener's son attend him on a hunt. They left alone before the break of day, the heir on a splendid stallion's back, the servant following behind on a mule, leading another laden with guns and blinds and decoys. Just enough rain fell to make the tracks of animals plain for all who read such things, and the wind always blew against their faces, wafting their scent away from anything that they might care to stalk—oh, a finer day for hunting had never dawned. But before the sun had reached the noon the Master's son returned, weeping bitterly and spattered with blood, crying out, 'Oh, there has been an accident, a terrible accident!'"
Damien stares into the fire, as though brooding over a loss of his own, speaking more to the fire than to us. "The gardener and his wife knew what had happened, no question of that. They ran into the woodlot like wild things, branch and bramble making way for them and closing over behind, so that none could follow. For a long time nobody saw or heard them after that, as the sky darkened overhead, till the foliage parted again for their return. When they bore back their son, with the top of his head blown off, the thunderheads gathered and the lightning cracked the sky, and all the heavens wept for what the ingrates had done to them and theirs."
The winds howl louder than ever all around us. Damien looks up appreciatively and nods, as though thanking the elements for backing him up. "The manor chaplain tried to persuade this father and mother to let go of their boy, but they insisted vehemently that he wasn't dead at all, a fury in their eyes, their teeth bared like animals. So the priest counseled all to leave them alone, at least for a day or two, till their madness passed and they had time to cope with reality."
Damien stands up by the hearth, his face ascending into shadows, only his eyes lit by firelight in faint gleams. "They took their son to the heart of the manor, to the gazebo at the meeting of crossed paths. As the thunder shouted their outrage and the lightning flashed and the rain blew in, soaking everything they wore into a second skin, they knelt beside the body, one on either side, their hands clasped over the one brought into the world by their love."
Silence. Only the raging weather just beyond the walls describes the scene to us. Then, in slow, deep tones, Damien tells us, "At that point every highborn man, woman, and child in the manor began to die. A weakness fell over each and every one of them. First they lapsed onto their couches and their beds, then they couldn't rise, then the servants saw the flesh collapse against the bone and the eyes slowly glaze over, and then the servants fled."
I cannot breathe. I don't dare cough. If this spell breaks it could shatter like shrapnel in our midst. "Some few, the chaplain among them, dared to stand on the brow of a hill just outside the property line, dared to gaze down onto that accursed place. They watched the horses founder and the hounds curl up, then waste away before their very eyes. The storm clouds parted and let in a sudden, merciless heat. They saw the vines curl in upon themselves as if burned, the flowers wilt, the shrubbery shed all leaves and then all twigs and then blow away, the grass fade into nothing, and finally they watched the trees, too, shed leaves, and the branches wither of all sap. The bark caved in upon itself, and then the hollow trunks fell down. The creeks dried up into scars upon the naked land. The mosses shrank from the terrace-stones and left them bare as bone. Even the mansion itself began to crumble, brick by brick, into a ruin soon overtaken by blowing sand."
And now his voice drops lower still, and the wind seems to drop low, too, so as to let us hear his every word. "And out of that sandstorm," he intones, "the few witnesses remaining saw the gardener walk out with his wife, each with an arm around the living son between them. Only a faintly mottled scar across the boy’s brow betrayed a hint of his injury. They walked away, the three of them, saying a word to no one, away from the spreading desert that they had left behind (and which remains there to this day) deep into the woods as though they belonged there. No one ever heard from them again."