I’m a terrible person. And terrible things appeal to me.
Branches terminating in skulls.
Transparent petals whose vessels glow white as bleached bone in the dark.
Bright yellow leaves whose soft serrated edges exude a dark red liquid that drips and pools and stains the ground like the signs of a crime scene.
Such sights could I have seen in the greenhouse of gruesome growths.
The courtyard of the maverick alchemist.
The garden of the peculiar.
I had expected that everything in that garden would bear thorns. I could not visit.
My skin remained unbroken. But the garden itself was a thorn, and it scratched my mind just as its maker had intended.
I am fortunate. There are people in this world who love me. And I love them. But they are not enough. And for that I am a terrible person.
It’s not that he wouldn’t look my way. He often did. And at first I didn’t care one way or the other. But in time I came to wonder what it meant when he tilted his head just so. Was there a flirtation in his smile? Or was that just the way he smiled? At everyone. I thought I was done with this. It wasn’t even fun. It was a burden. Thisparticular category of feeling that I had never learned how to calibrate.
A seed of affection sprouted overnight, and seemed so delicate and young, until it burst into a frenzy of growth, its heavy thorny tendrils unfurling across my whole life, sprawling and suffocating, and demanding to be fed only on the blood from the deepest chamber of my heart.
What had I fed it to make it grow so out of control? It’s a living thing. I don’t want to kill it. But if I don’t kill it, it will kill me. It might even burst outside of me and pierce someone else.
But after all, it has a certain…morbid beauty.
Let me stop being coy for just a moment (and then I will return to it.)
I made a declaration of love. It failed.
I made a desperate attempt to distract myself with “positive” images of beauty and hope. That too failed.
I decided to indulge in wallowing, in the hopes of speeding up the process of ridding my heart and mind of this longing that lingers and clings.
At the edge of exhaustion one night, I lay in bed, feeling that wild vine straining against my cardiac wall.
There’s nothing (no one) for it to hold on to in the outside world. It must consume me. Or it must die.
It couldn’t help how big it had grown. It didn’t mean to cause me any discomfort, any pain.
In my search for a reasonable way to wallow, a search for a morbidly beautiful growing thing like the vine that still entangled my heart, I stumbled upon a garden.
The striking images pricked my curiosity. The garden’s story drew me in.
Nestor’s Green it’s sometimes called. That was the name of the man who grew it. A couple of hundred years ago. I found no family name, or other indicator of his identity.
This seemed strange to me, considering this Nestor was not some mild-mannered gardener. And considering he’d left behind his own writings.
He started the garden when he was only fifteen and gave a speech about his purpose in its making.
Look at all these nobles and royals with their garish greenhouses, capturing beauty and sweetness. I will fill my hothouse with the eerie and uncanny. To jostle the soul into stirring.
This young commoner—who did somehow obtain an education of high quality—had the expected level of disdain for those who in his day were called his “betters.” His day was a tumultuous time. His ultimate act of rebellion and refusal and defiance was not as shocking as a sudden raid, not as disruptive as a march of protest, and certainly not as bloody as a revolution.
It was his garden.
At first, the gardener aimed only to grow a garden of strange delights to counter the rare and exclusive gardens of nobles and royals to whom few if any commoners were privy. His garden would hold rare plants and flowers, and yet ones that he could easily find and grow, for they were rare not out of desirability, but for the very reason that they were not desired. They were morbid or ugly or eerie.
In truth, there were many such plants in the gardens of nobles and royals, flowers in familiar and titillating shapes. Some of these plants were well-known to those who lived in the country. But Nestor lived in the heart of a bustling city of industry, where the only thing that seemed to grow was grime and steel. It was in the days before officials realized that cities should have trees and parks, havens where nature was nurtured.
Still, people did grow things on their own. Small things like herbs and flowers in pots.
So Nestor’s peculiar garden, into which admittance was free to all, held some appeal. Over the next several years, the garden’s collection of weird wonders grew, as did its popularity.
Soon, Nestor wasn’t just inviting people in to view the plants. He would speak to his visitors. He would plant the seeds of ideas in their minds. Sometimes those seeds sprouted. Sometimes they did not. But his garden would delight either way. It was not just filled with morbid beauty. He grew things in his hothouse that should not have grown in such a hostile climate. Orchids, for instance. Some of those orchids were shaped like birds in flight. And some had the faces of laughing monkeys hidden in their petals. These were especially loved by the children who visited.
And soon, Nestor came to the notice of those who wished both him and his garden to disappear. He was still just a commoner, and his garden was still small, but his detractors dared not act against him directly. He was not the only one sowing seeds of dissent among the populace. The times were volatile. Those who opposed him did not wish to “martyr” his famed garden by raiding and destroying it.
They instead used the same tactics he was using against them. They attempted to discredit him by claiming that the plants he grew were dangerous, some of them releasing toxins and hallucinogens by which he would manipulate the thoughts of those who innocently and unwittingly visited his garden.
What began as outlandish claims with one foot in some truth spiraled into outright rumor.
They claimed that the garden’s newest addition, a vast pond whose entire surface was covered in giant lily pads hid a deadly secret underneath. If Nestor was displeased with any of his visitors, he would lead them to that pond, stepping upon the lily pads and beckoning his guests forward. The lily pads could support the weight of many men, but Nestor could trigger any one of them to give way, like a muscle relaxing. The unsuspecting person standing on the lily pad would drop into the pond, the deep pond full of fearsome hippopotamuses.
They claimed he was growing a variety of flower whose petals, once they blossomed, would turn into crystal. If properly nurtured, they could crystallize into precious gems like diamond and ruby, which Nestor would then use to enrich not himself or his humble visitors, but the criminal causes that he considered so noble.
There was a plant whose thick waxy leaves secreted a substance that puffed up when it struck the air, until it looked and smelled like cotton candy in soft rainbow shades. This plant took years to grow, and he had not yet introduced it. But he meant it for the children. The substance was sweet, but also induced a terrible drowse on those who consumed it, and made their dreams most vivid. These dreams he would fill with horrible images—the very images of the horrors that grew in his garden.
There was a flower with a single petal that unfurled into the shape of a figure with a wide-brimmed hat and a flowing cloak, and two hypnotizing stamens flanking the faceless “head.” By day its colors were sunny and warm. But by night it glowed with a ghostly aura. This was no flower, they claimed, but a small being from a faraway world in the heavens, come to claim our world after striking a demon’s bargain with the likes of our wickedest alchemist.
I almost stopped reading about the garden then, afraid that the story would end with the authorities—or worse, a mob of ordinary people—burning down Nestor’s garden and chasing him into exile.
But that’s not what happened.
There was dissent and upheaval, but he didn’t seem to be directly involved in any of it.
According to his writings, he lost faith in his causes.
No ordinary man can do what kings can do. And even kings can no longer command the ruthless ones who mold the world according to their wills. They are the true alchemists, transforming towering piles of gold into boundless powers. It is as futile for me to fight such people as it would be for a single ant to fight against me.
So he abandoned futility.
But he did not abandon his garden.
Curiously, this is when he most began to fit the profile of the rogue alchemist.
Nestor now focused on finding and growing what he thought the people of his city might need but not be able to obtain. Amidst the eerie blooms of alien flowers, he grew succulents whose juices could heal. He ground pestle against mortar crushing seed pods for salves. And he upheld the first purpose of his garden, the true dream of his youth. Before he was dazzled by the pretention and posturing of others, adopting their ways even though they did not fit his ways, risking confusion and showiness, rather than following his own quiet path.
He had never meant for his garden to be a haven.
He had meant for those walking through his garden to feel unsettled by what they saw. Either they would shake off the feeling upon returning home, or they would be haunted by it, perhaps be drawn back to the garden to try and solve the mystery of the unspoken questions in their minds and hearts. Or perhaps just to indulge in strange thoughts, their own thoughts, at least once in lives that were constrained by mundanity and by forces outside themselves. To move the motionless mind into rousing. That was a transformation requiring no alchemy.
Nestor didn’t have any heirs.
His garden died soon after he did.
But a hundred years later, a resurgence of appreciation for all things gothic and grotesque resulted in the reviving of the garden for another age. If they hadn’t done so, I may never have learned about it.
I may never have been drawn into the legend as so many had been drawn into the garden when it still lived.
I wasn’t aiming to fill my mind with “strange thoughts.” I just wanted to heal my cracked and aching heart, and keep it from growing bitter from something as fleeting and unremarkable as romantic failure.
Maybe that’s why the thoughts I actually had were ordinary ones. I wondered if I should grow my own garden.
Nestor’s garden was grown with purpose. My own backyard garden is wild. Neither morbid nor beautiful. I am not skilled at growing green things, and yet…
My garden is green. It’s green with a bed of sprouts that grew from seeds blown in by chance winds. It’s green with little lizards. Lively juveniles emerging after winter. My garden is crunchy with dried leaves, tangled with tiny tumbleweeds, and cluttered with rigid stems that crisscross over dirt that’s supposed to be too hard and anemic to grow anything. There’s a thorny bush that I’d been meaning to uproot ever since I moved in, so I don’t have to keep trimming it. In my melancholy, I let it overgrow in the past few (or several) months. It sprouted these tiny white flowers I’d never seen before. And the flowers attracted a butterfly I’d never seen before. One with dark wings edged in yellow with blue spots below the edge. Mourning Cloak, it’s called. A morbid beauty. Minus the morbid actually.
That thorny bush grew wild and brought only delight to my life. But some things should not be allowed to grow wild. That sprawling crawling vine in my heart that I once called “love,” whose real name was probably “obsession,” is no longer growing rampant. The thorns have fallen off the dying fading vine. I now call it “longing,” because it still has a grip on my heart. It takes time for even the most delicate vine to die, and this one is not delicate. But even as it dies, maybe something else can start growing in its place. (Mushrooms of peace and quiet.) In the meantime…
I am fortunate. There are people in this world who love me. And I love them. They were not enough. And for that I will always be a terrible person. But I should still call some of them and see what they’re doing. Sometimes a terrible thing can also be helpful and useful, like a garden full of the peculiar. Sometimes even a heart entangled with rotting vines can be beautiful.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel