The blue-green grass, which ran the length of the centre path, extended outward into a large meadow. It looked freshly mowed. By whom? The urge to take her shoes off and run across it was strong, but Zoe resisted. Until she knew the layout of these gardens, it was wiser to stay on the path. In the distance, a lone tree stood outlined in light. These gardens were huge, much bigger than the land she owned.
She focused her eyes back on the path before her. It seemed to go on forever. What was that up ahead? As she got closer, Zoe could see that it was a handmade bench. A master woodworker must have carved the intricate patterns into the wood. The bench had flower beds laid out in a semi-circle around it. Crocuses and tulips in full bloom created a magnificent purple and white display. She sat on the corner of the bench and, as she leaned back to look around, her left hand brushed up against something. Zoe kneeled down in front of the bench. It had a hand-carved plaque centred on the back of the bench.
In Honour of
Her perseverance gleams bright.
With a shaky hand, Zoe reached out and gently touched the name of her great-grandmother. Her mom had never spoken of her, and neither had her nana. She was the first, so…
“Her assignment was to design this garden. What you see now is the work of her hands through the third generation,” a male voice said behind her.
Startled, Zoe dropped onto her right hip and rolled quickly in the opposite direction to gain some distance. In one fluid movement, she was back on her feet. “Who are you, and how did you get in here?”
The man lifted the soft floppy hat on his head, revealing vibrant green eyes. He had darker skin and looked Mediterranean or Italian maybe. She couldn’t make out his age. He wore an old-fashioned tunic and trousers.
“I’m sorry if I startled you. I am the caretaker here.”
“My nana never mentioned a caretaker.”
“No, of course not. Had she been in her right mind on the day of your sixteenth birthday party, she would’ve given the key to you and shared her knowledge. Unfortunately, the dementia had advanced by that time, and here we are.”
“I don’t understand. I was twelve the last time she brought me into the garden, though I don’t remember this part.”
“You were a young girl, and your nana knew what parts of the garden were safe for you.”
“Safe? So, there are parts that are dangerous. The old man lied.”
“Zoe…” the caretaker said with a shake of his head. “Your thoughts always travelled faster than you could speak.”
It felt like the ground shifted under her feet and the world turned around her. As soon as the dizziness subsided, she stood in front of a large lagoon. In the near distance, a beautiful waterfall cascaded while sunlight reflected off the frothy white mist.
Barely able to look away, Zoe closed her eyes and turned around. As she opened her eyes, she realized there was a large willow tree towering at least forty feet into the air. Its long, thin branches and narrow light-green leaves stretched toward the ground but never reached it. Someone had expertly trimmed each branch so that they all ended eight feet above the ground. Beside the tree was another hand-carved bench.
Certain that the caretaker was watching her, Zoe slowly turned in a circle as she scanned the grounds, but she was alone. Zoe walked to the bench and bent down to examine it. The similarities to the previous one were uncanny. The only difference she could see was in the carving on the back of the bench.
In Honour of
Her love shines like a diamond.
Emotions surged from a well deep within. Her eyes filled with tears as regret scolded her again. She should have visited her in the care home. Zoe hadn’t wanted her last memory to be the shell of the person she loved. Her mother couldn’t remember anything else, and that image still tortured her.
“Evelyn understands that, Zoe, and doesn’t hold it against you. It’s time you forgave yourself.”
Anger wiped out regret in an instant. She balled her fists, stood up, and turned around. “Who the hell do you think you are? My nana is dead! You have the audacity to speak of her as if she’s still living. How dare you? You know what? Do my family a favour and stop carving these plaques in the present tense. If you can’t do that, then don’t carve them at all!”
“There’s the inner fire to match the fire in your hair,” the caretaker said gently, then burst into laughter. “If you knew me, you wouldn’t be asking those questions. Come have a seat, young Zoe. There is still much for you to learn.”
She flung her hair back out of her eyes and placed her hands on her hips. “And why should I trust anything that you tell me? I don’t know you from Adam!”
“What do you mean, which one? I only know one Adam, and that’s Adam McEwen. He said it was his task to show me how to get here and unlock the door with this key my nana left me,” Zoe said, as she pulled the key out of her pocket and placed it in her palm so the caretaker could see it.
“Yes, I am very pleased with that Adam. He has been faithful in fulfilling his final task. Your great-grandmother was the keeper of that key from the moment your great-grandfather and papa finished the door and inset it into the wall. Then she obediently passed it on to your nana about six months after she married your papa. Evelyn should have passed it on to you on your sixteenth birthday, but the dementia progressed rapidly and wiped away that part of her memory.”
His words resonated deep inside of her. She sat on the far side of the bench, keeping some distance between them. “How do you know so much when I know so little?”
“I told you, I am the caretaker. I have always been and I always will be.”
“Great, and a philosopher! Am I ever going to get a straight answer from you?”
“Everything will become clear in time. You are the keeper of the key now, and you will pass it down to your own daughter on her sixteenth birthday.”
“I don’t have a daughter!”
“Wait, now you’re telling me I’m going to have a kid. I am not married. And I do not have, nor have I ever had, a proper boyfriend. It’s not on the horizon, caretaker.”
“Not within the timeline you can see. I am outside of that timeline and see the beginning and the end. There isn’t anything that was or is or will be that I do not know.”
I’m going to check the local paper and see if there are any reports of an escaped psych patient around here. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Mr. Caretaker, but I need to get back to the house. If you would kindly point me toward the gate, I will make sure it’s locked behind me,” she said out loud.
The dizziness returned, and when she opened her eyes, she was standing on the path at the crossroads. Zoe scanned the garden, which looked the same as it had that morning. Turning, she followed the path back to the gate. She grabbed the key, but there was no corresponding keyhole on this side of the door. How odd. As with the opposite side, there was also no handle.
Without thinking, Zoe reached out with her left hand and pushed. The door swung outwards, and she exited the garden, pushed the door closed, fit the key back into the lock, and turned it to the left. A tiny click was the only sign it had locked.
Her eyes travelled to the hinges on the door. She was pretty sure that hinges forged in her great-grandfather’s day only allowed a door to open in one direction. Zoe decided to research the shape of the hinges and see if she was right. If so, it would be one more thing to add to her list of oddities about the garden.
She entered the house through the back door. Hurrying to the office, she placed the key back in the secret compartment of her desk drawer. After it was closed, Zoe put her head back, closed her eyes, and took a few deep breaths. She wasn’t sure if any of the day’s events were real.
Zoe walked downstairs, stepped out onto the porch, and closed the front door behind her. The mailbox was at the end of the driveway, and she enjoyed the beautiful walk. Being out in nature fed her soul and recharged her batteries.
Before she could take another step, a gust of wind slammed into her left side, forcing her to turn toward the porch swing. It was creaking as the wind pushed it back and forth. She squinted against the glare of the late afternoon sun and raised her left hand to shield her face. There was definitely something on the porch swing. Zoe took a few steps forward and gasped.
Her nana’s gardening gloves and trowel lay on top of the folded apron she’d always worn in the garden. Zoe vaguely remembered the embroidery on the front of it. Her twelve-year-old eyes saw nothing more than a pretty design.
Now, the miniature reproduction of the willow tree, lagoon, and waterfall made the little hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up.
Photo by Simon Wilkes on Unsplash