He came here for the first time long ago. At least, long seems the correct word to use now: long rolling off the tongue in the way that time bites back, elastic. It had been so long since he had first sat on the dewy grass with his watercolours, filling the crisp blank pages with the scenes around him. Long, languid days with the pleasures of easy tranquillity. The quaint arrangement of herbaceous borders, trellises, lush tufts of beard-grass clumped by a pond of goldfish. Silken ripples of afternoon sunlight, passing its lustrous smile over neatly-cut lawns and the silhouettes of apple trees. With fine calligraphy, he had captioned each sketch with a mood or a month or a colour indicative of the season. People had a lust for the simple indulgence of words. Later, he had that early sketchbook bound in purple velvet, and now it waited in his study, collecting dust. His clients never wanted the old works; he was always grappling with their desire for the new.
The roses slithered from the flower beds, their speckled petals shrivelled and dying in memories of summer. The fountain, once a glory of sparkling granite, gushing forth its streams of silver, has frozen solid. A sheet of white ice is splintered with little cracks and fissures that pattern it in suspended rivulets. An old woman leans over the edge, muttering so quietly that she cannot be heard over the brisk chatters of the breeze. No such breeze should pass through these gardens. She draws her finger over the ice, gathering the frost crystals under her nails.
She remembers the first time she saw those magical watercolours. A time before, where glissades of daylight would pull her from her dreams and she would look in the mirror and have her little wish. But the world, of course, would have to corrupt her. There was no going back to this Eden; no matter the stacks of platinum she wore on her fingers, no matter, no matter…
You penetrate the ice: the water gushes forth, cold and sharp. It slushes round your nerves and bubbles like boiling blood, slushes around till you’ve forgotten what it was. Fire and ice; cold and hot. Stop.
The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by blending blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.
Icicles snap from the tips of the fountain; their glass cracks fragments over the pink paving stones. It is still too cold for them to melt. They will remain, like chips of colourless chrysoberyl. Each one indifferent; each one, alone.
She feels herself glitter and fizz in this garden; she is a girl once again. She picks up a piece of ice and holds it tight until it melts. The water bleeds from between her fingers and she looks to the sky, gasping. There is no sky; no heaven in this garden. Everything liquid and melting. She feels herself falling upwards, upwards into that long, azure void. The water drips down and she smells it dissolve through the earth. She too will return to that earth.
The first time he showed her the sketchbook, she thought he was mad: mad to depict such a place of perfection, a place that could not exist. The others turned out their pockets and spent fortunes on the paradise he sold. Now, they were nothing but the spirit wisps of clouds in the sky. A sky she no longer knew.
For every time she awoke in the garden, old and wrinkled and frail as she was, she felt strange and new. She felt her own soul carried off in the milky rills of the river, carried beyond the borders of Paradise. She had no desire to leave the garden, not ever.
She plucked the dead head of a rose and sat it upon the fountain water. She felt the world drift away from her, growing evermore strange and remote. And then she knew that spring was coming, because the ice began to crack and the rose stayed afloat.
(Prompts: consumer, garden, time)
by Maria Rose Sledmere