As it so happened, the Houses of the Black Radish, the Purple Carrot, and the Green Garlic all found themselves traveling the rough road that led to the garden of perpetuation.
They traveled thus, the human envoys carrying vegetable plant seed on their persons and vegetable spirit within their persons. As the envoys conversed among themselves, so too did the spirits of the vegetables.
“Root and bulb are we,” said the Radish, with sharp attention. “No tubers do I see.”
“The tubers are well-loved,” the Carrot remarked sweetly. “They have no need of the great garden.”
“So are we well-loved,” said the Garlic with mild bitterness. “Or once were. And will be again, I would wager.”
“But by then it may be too late,” Carrot warned. “We would be gone.”
Black Radish sighed. “It will be lovely to live in a garden where we need not fear extinction. But I will miss my family. And I will miss the world.”
So they spoke to each other as they walked along the part of their path that lay in the natural world.
Soil and sunlight, water and worm. These were still needed for the growing of plants in ancient times. But in those times, to truly live and to thrive as they were meant to, plants also required a nourishment that not many legends speak of. The spirit of an animated being, that is, the spirit of an animal.
In the wild, there was a trading of nourishments.
When the butterfly fluttered by drinking nectar from a flower, she too provided nectar for the flower. A nectar not tasted or felt, but gently drawn, a small share of the butterfly’s sparkling spirit.
When the giraffe plucked the leaves and petals of the acacia, the acacia too plucked a portion of the giraffe’s serene spirit.
One particular animated being, the human being, learned of this trade, and learned to use their spirits to cultivate plants.
People soon learned that various vegetables nourished with animating spirits grew a spirit of their own, through which they learned to speak with their human handlers. These vegetable spirits could pass from the world, as animal spirits did. But with the help of people, they could also pass from a grown vegetable to a newly sprouted one.
Over time, the spirits of certain lines of vegetable and human became so intertwined that only a particular family could properly grow that particular vegetable with their spirits. So it came to be that there were houses among humans aligned with their vegetables. The House of the Bitter Melon. The House of the Fiddleheads.
One day, it was not known how, a vegetable was discovered that had grown without a resident spirit. It soon came to pass that vegetables could grow with or without a resident spirit. Needing only sunlight and soil, water and worm. These spiritless vegetables become so common and so coveted for their multitude and convenience that they claimed all soil and sunlight and water or themselves. The spirited vegetables began to die out.
But word soon came to those who grew vegetables with resident spirits, word of hope in the form of an invitation to send forth envoys on a journey to a distant garden where any seed, sprout, and root could grow. And where all that grew were filled with spirit and always would be. Even if they vanished from the world at large, what grew in the garden would abide.
There was, however, a challenge. For the garden to be as it was, a place where any seed could grow, it could not abide in the natural world. And so the path to the garden was not a natural path. Maps were provided to the vegetable houses. The journeys would still be daunting. But the maps would help the envoys to avoid the dangers that lurked in the spaces between the natural world and supernatural world.
The human envoys were arguing. The maps that each house possessed had shown them the same path until the moment they reached the border of the province through which they had been passing.
Now, the map led each in a different direction.
“My envoy is stubborn,” Black Radish said. “And yet he is uncertain. I have advised him to stop, but he will not.”
“What difference does it make which path we travel?” Green Garlic grumbled. “The destination is the same.”
“They fear trickery, it would seem,” said Purple Carrot. “My envoy too is uncertain. But not just about the path. She fears there is no garden at all.”
Garlic grumbled again. “Then why did she agree to the journey?”
“Something is wrong,” Radish said, pricking the envoy’s attention.
The envoy of the House of the Black Radish stopped. He called a halt to his companions.
“We have wandered off the path,” Radish said.
“How?” Garlic asked. “We are still on the path.”
True enough that there was still a path below the feet of the human envoys. But it was not their path. Black Radish could not say how it was so, but it was so. The path they now walked was not the one that led to the garden.
The others were not certain. Until the ground began to thump, pebbles hopping, dirt shifting, and fallen branches crackling.
Something was coming their way.
That something made a sound, a low-pitched keening. It galloped toward them on four long-furred legs. Its body was broad and round, like a hippo. Its head was obscured behind a thick and flowing mane that whipped in the wind of its mad charge.
The human envoys scattered, two climbing the nearby trees, and one—the House of the Purple Carrot—drawing a small axe from her back.
“Once we have its attention,” the Carrot said boldly, “the rest of you must flee!”
But as the strange beast approached, those who were perched in the trees began to pelt the beast with stones and twigs.
The beast was undeterred and bore down on the Purple Carrot envoy, who dodged out of the way as the beast passed, and spun around to see what the beast would do next.
The beast did not veer around to attack the party again. And indeed, it did not seem to have even noticed the small creatures who had stood in its path, who would have been trampled by its passing had they not jumped away from the path.
A wave of severe dizziness passed through the party. The Purple Carrot envoy dropped to her knees and groaned. The envoys in the trees clutched to the branches to keep from falling.
“What was that?” Carrot asked, spirit shivering and prickling from the passing of danger.
“We left the path,” Black Radish said. “This is not the same path we were traveling. And even that path was not the same path we had been traveling.”
Green Garlic grumbled. “Speak not in riddles, Radish.”
But Radish was right. The human envoys consulted their maps and concluded that it was so. They were not on the path they had been following.
Carrot marveled. “Radish, how did you know?”
“Can you not perceive that we are no longer in the natural world? Water trickles in strange spirals. And it lies flat when it should lie in domes. Dust…clusters in the air. And that beast’s fur fluttered in strange directions as it passed.”
“I was too terrified to notice,” said Garlic.
Radish’s spirit seemed to beam forth from the Radish envoy’s eyes. “Do you not feel that we are closer to the garden?”
“There is a certain sweet warmth in my spirit,” Carrot said. “It has grown as we have traveled. But that could not be it. That must be hope and happiness.”
“Perhaps, my friend, it is both.”
“Something is wrong,” said Garlic, whose attention was turned to the envoys.
The Carrot envoy suddenly gasped. The Radish envoy cried out. And the Garlic envoy gaped.
All turned their attention to the three maps over which the envoys had argued so.
Now there would be no argument.
For there would be no maps.
“The ink is fading,” said Garlic.
The envoys set the maps down. One drew what she could in the dirt with twigs, while another pulled out parchment, ink, and pen. They drew what they could remember. And the vegetable spirits added what they could remember of the maps.
“A poor substitute,” said Garlic, once the ink dried on the remembered map.
Carrot’s spirit dimmed. “Is this trickery? Why would the garden’s keeper send us a map that would fade?”
“Why indeed?” Black Radish said, considering the now-blank parchments that had once been their guides.
The party could not remain where they stood. In hopes of finding a town or a village, the human envoys continued on.
They passed through a land of stone and sand. A land where nothing grew except their fear and doubt. And when they came to the border of that land, they came to a land of snow and ice.
Nowhere did they meet other travelers. Nowhere did they find other shelter but what they had brought themselves. Nowhere did they find any sign that they were traveling the path to the garden of perpetuation.
Nowhere that is, save in the certainty of Black Radish’s spirit.
“We have come closer,” Radish said as they rested one afternoon. “But for how much and how quickly we have traveled, we should be closer still.”
“Are you suggesting that we are traveling in circles?” Garlic asked.
“That map we devised is of no real use,” said Carrot. “It never was. If only we had not lost the maps that the garden’s keeper had sent us.”
“But we did not lose them,” Garlic said, grumbling bitterly. “They abandoned us.”
“It would seem so,” Black Radish said.
They had been wandering for too long. The ample stores of food that the envoys had brought were at an end. And they could not rely upon the lands they traveled to feed them. For nothing grew, not weed, not sprout. They traveled now a plains of dirt that seemed rich enough for grass, flower, tree, and herb. And yet, nothing grew.
At last, the party decided that the envoys must plant a few of the seeds they carried. In the time it took for the seeds to grow, they would finish what little food they had left. If the seeds did not grow, all would perish. But if they did, then they might survive long enough to devise another plan. Wandering in hopes of finding the garden, or even finding a way home, was futile.
“If we are to perish, at least we do not perish alone,” Carrot said. And only sweet Carrot could have said such a thing without driving the party into deeper despair.
Only sweet Carrot could have said such a thing without earning the grumbling of Garlic.
“The seeds will grow,” Black Radish said, observing the soil under which the seeds of radish, carrot, and garlic had been planted. “There is no reason they should not.”
When the party woke, they were greeted by the cold dawn, and by a sight they had not seen in many a moon.
A path began where they lay and trailed off toward the western horizon.
“Trickery?” the Carrot asked, just as one of the envoys called out to the others.
The envoy knelt before the spot where they had planted the seeds of radish, carrot, and garlic. All the seeds had sprouted, and grown, and grown to fullness. The envoys gathered the vegetables, which had grown without spirit, though the envoys had poured spirit into them. They gathered too a few seeds from the few flowers that had bloomed.
“This is troubling,” said Garlic.
“Wait,” said Radish, observing the vegetables. “They are not without spirit. But they grew too fast for their spirits to catch up. The spirits are…raw.”
“What does that mean?” asked Carrot. “Can the envoys still eat them?”
“Perhaps they will not need to. The vegetables grew overnight. Their food stores are not yet at end. And look.”
Radish indicated the path leading away from their camp.
In the distance, there were shapes.
“That looks like, like trees!” Carrot’s spirit brightened.
The party traveled the path, and now all three vegetable spirits perceived what Carrot had called a “sweet warmth” growing in their spirits.
“We have only traveled half a day,” Black Radish said, “and yet we have come far closer to the garden than we have in many moons.”
Before the end of the day, however, they reached the end of the path. And the end of the trees. The trees bore no fruit anyway. They bore no sap, and they bore no spirits.
All agreed that they must plant more seeds. And so they did.
But when morning came, and they saw a path again, Black Radish warned the envoys not to pluck the vegetables that had grown.
“The spirits are not ready,” Radish said. “And I have a notion that I believe is worth the testing.”
After some discussion among the others, all agreed. Their hopes and spirits were raised, and so was their generosity restored, and their tolerance for the risk of leaving behind the vegetables that could sustain the party.
They traveled the path, expecting it to come to an end at the end of the day, as the previous path had. But it did not. It continued on.
The party feared that the path would vanish if they rested for the night. So they walked onward for as long as they could.
Then they made camp. And they slept.
In the morning, the path was still there.
“Most unpredictable, this enchanted path,” the Carrot remarked.
“I’m not sure that is true,” said the Radish. “I believe this path has endured because we did not pluck the vegetables we planted from the ground.”
“Those newborn spirits?” Garlic said.
“As one faded, another appeared,” Radish said, mystically.
“I said no riddles, Radish.”
“We have been carrying the map with us, my friends.”
Carrot’s spirit glimmered. “The seeds.”
Garlic grumbled. “Then why didn’t the keeper just say so on the map?”
“Trickery?” Carrot wondered. “Or a lesson?”
“What lesson?” Radish said. “That vegetable and animal need each other? None in this party need to be taught that lesson. We have risked our lives and spirits for each other. No, if this was not an accident, then I believe it may be a test.”
Green Garlic’s spirit dimmed. “A test? What makes this garden-keeper the judge of who is worthy and who is not?”
“I don’t think it’s a test of worthiness, my friend,” Black Radish said. “The garden is no place for idle visitors.”
“A test of our resolve then,” said Purple Carrot. “Our cleverness?”
“We have come much closer,” the Garlic allowed. “I can almost taste the soil.”
The path continued for several days before it too vanished. And so the envoys planted more seeds. But leaving the vegetables behind meant that they could only plant so many seeds before they would run out. All hoped that they would reach the garden before then.
“It was not to be,” said Green Garlic.
“We are so close,” said Purple Carrot. “I do believe that if we plant these last seeds, the path that appears will lead up straight to the garden.”
“I believe it too, my friend,” said Black Radish, “but once we reach the garden, we will have no seeds to plant. We three will be spirits without body.”
Out of necessity, the envoys had eaten the vegetables from that first crop, and the food had given them much more strength and energy than they would have expected. But when the seeds from that crop had been planted, no path had appeared.
Still, the party did not give up hope. For if their last seeds led them to the garden, then they would find the gardener and explain that they must return home and make the journey again. They would bring more seeds, and perhaps if the gardener trusted them, the second journey to the garden would be a shorter, more pleasant one.
With such hopes in their spirits, the party retired for the night at the end of one path, hoping to wake to the beginning of another.
But when they woke, there was no other path for them to walk.
And the seeds they had planted had not grown as the others had.
And yet, they did not despair.
“The garden is here,” Black Radish said.
Purple Carrot and Green Garlic perceived it was so too. The human envoys saw nothing, but curiously their spirits were at ease. They suspected it would not be so for long. So they decided to have breakfast and rest for a while before they planned what they must do next.
The Black Radish envoy poured water over the seeds that they had planted the night before just as the first rays of dawn fell upon the soil.
Before his eyes the soil began to shift and tremble. A humming and crackling and whistling sounded from beneath the ground, and soon from all around them.
From the barren earth, sprouted blades of grass, and between the blades of grass rose the tall stems of sunflowers, and around the camp unfurled beds of white and purple petunias. The sprouts and trunks of trees emerged from the ground and rose and broadened, stretching their branches and wiggling their leaves.
The envoys rose, and pointed to a patch of earth where rows of lettuce leaves bloomed, and stalks of green beans and yellow tomatoes loomed. Clusters of fiddlehead ferns peaked over the broad leaves of colocasia, shaped like the ears of the elephant. Then appeared vegetables that none in the party had ever seen before. Blue beanstalks as tall and thick as a birch tree, bearing long strands of dark blue beans. Vines with stems the color of the sky bearing peppers of the same shade.
All were bright with spirit.
As the Houses of Black Radish, Purple Carrot, and Green Garlic marveled, someone approached. The Green Garlic envoy asked if the one who welcomed them into the garden was the one who had created the garden.
“She is,” Black Radish said to his fellow vegetable spirits. “As are we.”
For last to appear in the garden were other figures moving about, other envoys, and the spirits they carried. All had planted their last seeds in the garden. And when they had, the garden had appeared around them.
“We are here,” Purple Carrot said, “in our new home.”
“I would have preferred a spot on that hill over there,” Green Garlic grumbled. “But this patch isn’t bad.”
“And we are clustered together,” Carrot said sweetly. “You’re stuck with us, Garlic.”
“It will take a while for these seeds to grow,” Radish said. “There will still be time for your envoy to move you, my friend, if you wish it.”
“And then they will part with us, and we will be here for eternity,” Garlic lamented, but not with sincerity.
“Perhaps not,” Carrot said. “My envoy wishes to stay. And the garden needs gardeners.”
Black Radish’s spirit brightened. “And after all, we may be missed in time. We will need our envoys or their descendants to carry us when we return to the world someday.”
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel