The following story received an honorable mention from Tales from The Lake Vol.3 editor Monique Snyman. ©ChantalBoudreau
Come Into Her Garden
I didn’t think I’d be able to convince Syl to move to the city, a move I needed to make for the sake of my career. She would spend hours labouring away at her vegetable and flower gardens that surrounded our little country home. I was never allowed to touch them, though. Sylvia said I had a ‘black thumb’—everything green that I tried to nurture seemed to shrivel up and die. So I stayed away from her babies, respecting her wishes. I never thought in a million years she would agree to abandon them. I guess she loved me more than I realized at the time. On the other hand, her willingness might have been because of our dismal failure at conceiving a child. Living in the city meant living closer to the fertility specialists and if it came down to it, being there would give us better access to fertility treatments. That’s the only reason I can figure she would agree to move to the brownstone we would be renting, sight unseen. She didn’t even know about the little patch of gardener’s paradise out back, at the time. She had always told me how much she hated cities. They were too dirty and dingy and dead. I had fallen in love with the brownstone the moment I walked through the front door, maybe even when I initially spotted its elaborately carved exterior with the wrought iron detailing. Met by the high staircase to the second floor, I had immediately wanted to make the move, bewitched by its architecture. The brownstone was reasonable spacious for city-dwelling and reeked of history. I’m not sure if my excitement had been contagious, but Syl had given me her approval based on my word alone. I had glanced out at the back, and noted that there was an overgrown swath of greenery that she could perhaps reclaim and tame. I hadn’t thought much of it, but once Syl had seen it, she was keen on the idea. She had always loved a challenge, and while it wouldn’t offer her the natural expanses of our country home it was certainly better than nothing. Actually, I think once we were there, she enjoyed it even more that her country gardens. The little plot behind our new house had an intimacy that the larger plots and open spaces couldn’t offer. She had loved the bounty of the country, but this tiny Eden had seduced her in a way nothing had ever before. It all started when we first began moving in. I was helping to unload our belongings, and she had wandered into the back after exploring the lower level of the house, to decide where we would put our things. “Mort!” she called, a cry of delight. “You have to come see this!” Mort was short for Mortimer. I had been saddled with my grandfather’s name, a family tradition. Syl had suffered a similar fate, named after her great aunt, Sylvia. I wandered into the back lot to find her knee-deep in foliage and pushing away mounds of overgrown shrubbery. She looked back at me with flushed cheeks and a broad grin. “I found an antique plaque, mounted on the wall here. It’s a green man—a nature spirit who will oversee my garden and keep it fertile.” I hadn’t noticed it while on my initial tour, hidden by the out-of-control greenery. Once Syl had uncovered the spot on the wall, I had to admire the artistry. The plaque was some sort of gold-tone metal, bronze or brass I would guess, but decorated with very intricate bas-relief that had been carefully coated with a variety of green enamels. The image was the face of a man, formed from a mixture of leaves that had been intertwined and woven together. She clearly adored it, but I found it creepy. I laughed nervously. “A garden guardian—that’s great. Maybe he can help you whip this place into shape.” I reached over and touched a gnarled and mossy twig. “Right now, it’s a mess.” Syl swivelled to face me with a frown, her hands on her hips. “Mortimer Darius Flemming, I called you out here just to look, not to touch. You agreed you would keep your ‘black thumb’ away from my garden. I don’t ever want to see you handling anything out here again. Remember your promise.” I raised my hands with a smile and backed towards the door. “Okay, okay, all three names—you mean business. Consider me gone, and if I ever come back I won’t lay a finger on your precious plants. Cross my heart and hope to die.” I did as I was told and stayed out of the garden, no touching, but I didn’t stop observing. There was a terrace on our second floor that looked out over the little back lot. I would sit up there during my leisure hours with a book, occasionally watching her poke and preen the foliage. She often hummed and murmured to herself as she worked, trimming away the overgrowth, planting new seedlings or wrestling weeds from the soil. Syl was as happy as I had ever seen her, despite other disappointments, our childlessness forgotten as long as she had something else to nurture. That was until the winter months were upon us and she was forced inside by colder weather. Syl’s mood shifted, dimming until it was as grey as the skies outside. Those months also happened to be when our trips to the specialists began, along with the first of our fertility treatments. When they proved unsuccessful, the change in Syl worried me regarding her mental stability. No longer just dismal, now she was suffering from earnest depression. It was like a dark, soul-sucking cloud had enveloped our world and it did not lift for even a moment until the spring. Relief doesn’t describe what I felt when the snow melted, the earth thawed, and tiny green buds began emerging out in Syl’s garden. I saw little of her until sunset most days, but when I did see her she wore a smile and she moved with lighter steps. I caught her humming to herself again and I was thrilled when I actually heard her laugh for the first time in months. I didn’t think much of it, far too pleased that her garden was restoring vitality to her soul. One weekend, I was sitting on the terrace in the sun with a book in hand when I heard her giggle. I glanced away from my murder mystery and peered into the back lot. Perhaps the glare from the bright sunlight had deceived me, but I could have sworn I saw someone else there, a masculine form mostly obscured by the thickening brush. Puzzled, because we rarely had guests, and curious to see who it was, I put down my book and wandered downstairs. As I approached the back door, I saw a flurry of green move past the window. Was it just the leaves on some of the shrubbery shaking violently in response to a particularly strong gust of wind? I peeked through the frosted glass and I was sure I saw a man dressed in green standing behind Syl, his hand on her shoulder. I flung the door open quickly, but not quickly enough. He was already gone. Syl started at the sound of the door, and turned to look at me. Her eyes seemed unusually bright and her cheeks rosier than normal. She beamed a smile at me. “Oh—hello, Mort. Come to see my garden? It’s still growing but look at how lush it is already. It’s going to be absolutely beautiful by mid-summer.” She glanced over at the green man plaque. “I guess it pays to have the blessing of a nature spirit.” “It’s lovely, Syl, and I have no doubt that you’ll make it even better,” I agreed. “Was there someone here? I thought I heard you talking and I was almost certain I saw a man here.” Syl laughed and turned away from me again. “You should stay out of the sun, Mort. You’re seeing things. I’ve been by myself, and talking to myself since I came out here this morning. I’ll try to keep my prattle down to a whisper. I suppose we don’t want our neighbours thinking I’m crazy.” Syl had never lied to me before nor would she have any reason to do so, so I had to take her word for it. Nevertheless, it didn’t feel like she was telling me the truth and when I had followed her gaze to the green man plaque, a chill had run up my spine. From that point onward, I listened for that suggestive giggle coming from the back lot every time I sat on the terrace. With each instance, when I peered down into Syl’s garden, I caught sight of that silhouette partially concealed by the bushes. Each time, I also snuck down to the back door and opened it with one abrupt motion, hoping to catch Syl’s visitor there. I would pretend to be coming out to get a look at her progress, a little embarrassed at my suspicions. I couldn’t shake a queasy feeling in my stomach that she was hiding something from me—something involving the green man. She would play innocent, laughing and shrugging and directing my attention to the newest blossoms or any changes she had recently made, but it was almost as if she considered my presence an intrusion. Call me paranoid if you wish. I sensed a rift developing between us, and I didn’t like it. She was less amorous and no longer invited any romantic advances from me. I’m sure to some extent it could be blamed on our lack of success at conceiving a child, even with the help of fertility drugs, but I had this idea that there was more to this new coolness. I started to believe the garden was in some way replacing her need for my affections, competing with me, and I was helpless to fight it. I had promised her I wouldn’t touch her plants and I would keep my word. The frustration and uneasiness had me on edge. Then one day, after sprinting from the terrace to fling the back door open, I got a really good look at the man who had been visiting my wife in secret, and I know he saw me in return. I had been mistaken when I thought that he was dressed in green. In fact, he wasn’t really dressed in anything at all. The colour came from the leafy tendrils encircling his body. Various vines—including draping strands of ivy, fern fronds and mosses, flowers and leaves, bound to him by an assortment of grasses—covered him from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Wearing this natural camouflage, he had only to step back into the foliage that grew throughout the back lot to disappear. “Who was that?” I demanded. I didn’t doubt myself at all by that point. I was quite aware of what I had seen and Syl wasn’t about to convince me otherwise. “What are you talking about? There’s no one here? The only way to get out of this garden would be to walk past you. Is something wrong with you, Mort? Is it stress at work? Something else?” Syl shot me a quick glance over her shoulder before turning back to her work. I saw the deception in her brown eyes, shadowed by the sunhat she always wore while gardening. “You’ve seemed so tense lately. Maybe you need to take up a hobby to get your mind off of other things.” I knew if she was choosing to lie to me, no amount of questions would yield truthful answers. I muttered something incoherent, a fractured and insincere apology, before stepping back into the house. I had recognized the man from the face on the plaque. I just wanted to hear her say it to confirm my beliefs. The man in her garden was the green man, in the flesh and fully formed, with all of his anatomy intact and only nature as his veil. I felt threatened, betrayed, and I wanted to scream and punch things. Something told me my wife was in love with him. That night, I had difficulty sleeping. I tossed and turned, and when I did drift off my sleep was shallow. I awoke part way through the night to quiet moans, sensual ones. My tired, groggy brain did not register the situation fully at first, and I thought perhaps that Syl had finally shed her recent reluctance to be intimate, offering some sort of invitation. I put out a hand to caress her, but her side of the bed was empty. A question chilled my blood and I was suddenly very awake. Where was she? I realized that the sounds were coming from outside, the door to the terrace open because of the summer heat. Slipping quietly out of bed, I tiptoed over to the terrace, a knot in my gut as soon as I recognized the fact that those sounds from Syl were coming from her garden. While we had no exterior lighting for the back lot, there was a full moon high in the sky that night, so when I peered down below, the garden and all of its contents were lit up by a silvery glow. I could see movement. Syl was sprawled on the soil amongst her precious plants, not seeming to care that this position might put some of them at risk. The figure of a man, no doubt the one I had seen there with her repetitively in the past few weeks, crouched over her and I could tell by the way they writhed and panted that this was no innocent encounter. Syl tilted her head back and moaned softly each time her lover shifted atop her. What I could see of her expression suggested pure bliss. She had never looked that way during our love-making. A burning, heart-wrenching rage began eating away at me, consuming me with jealousy. I wanted to run down to her garden and catch them in the act, but I knew what would happen if I tried. I would fling the door open and he would step away from her, disappearing into the foliage as he always did. It would leave me standing there looking the fool, while Syl would deny everything, suggesting she was out for an innocent night-time stroll in her garden, by herself. Inside, she would be laughing at me, the cuckolded man who could do nothing to prove that he had been deceived. No, that wasn’t the way to handle this. I needed to find a means of producing proof. Perhaps I had to come up with a way to lure the green man into her garden while I was there alone, so I could trap him and confront him. I’d bring a camera to capture confirmation of his existence and once I had evidence in hand, I could challenge Syl when she denied that she had been with him. I came up with a plan, intending to put it into action while Syl was out at work the following day. I pretended to be sleeping when she returned to bed, when in truth I was plotting how things would go when I met with the green man. I went to work in the morning, as per usual, but I begged off sick halfway through the day so I could return home while Syl was out. Once back at the house, I started gathering the things I needed: a camera, her widest sun hat, and one of the long flowery jackets she would wear to protect her skin from the sun. It was big and flowing, large enough to fit me despite my bulk, and shapeless enough to disguise my masculine form. From behind, wearing her things to disguise me and kneeling beside the garden, I could not be easily distinguished from my wife. One would have to get close enough to touch me to tell the difference. I walked into the garden and crouched next to the largest bed, placing my camera on the rock edging, my back to the plaque with the green man. I had no intention of touching any of her plants. Unlike Syl, I kept my promises. I waited several minutes, pretending to garden, before anything happened. My patience was eventually rewarded when I felt a hand upon my shoulder. I veered around, grasping at the arm that held me, making a grab for the camera at the same time. I never did get that picture. Instead, I froze, staring at the nature spirit who stared at me in return. The moment my hand connected with the greenery covering his wrist, I could see something was wrong. Some of the leaves and flowers that ornamented his skin began to shrivel and curl, the fern fronds drooped, the vines and grasses sagged. His emerald face took on an air of revulsion and horror. I should have snapped a picture right then and there, with both of us immobile, but the shock of the moment stole my senses. Instead, the second I could move again, I leaned away from the green man and let go. He stepped back into the shrubbery and was gone. I kicked myself, my opportunity lost. Covering my tracks, I snatched up the camera, returning it to its place. Then I shed Syl’s gardening things and went upstairs to read a book and wait for her to come home. I couldn’t concentrate on the story, unable to stop thinking about my encounter with the green man. My heart raced. While I struggled to follow the words, I was distracted by something new, a horrible sound coming from the back lot. I have to believe that Syl’s theory about my “black thumb” held true. My curiosity piqued by the sound—part groaning part wailing—I had to investigate. Watching from my perch on the terrace, I observed the green man lying at the centre of her garden, writhing and twitching in terrible pain, his leafy body slowly withering into a brown, brittle mass. When there was nothing left of him but a blanket of papery, colourless flakes, a stiff breeze scattered him to all corners of the lot. The green man was no more, and the pieces of him that remained could not be identified as belonging to him. They just looked like common dead plant debris. I worked hard not to behave differently around Syl when she arrived home, carrying with me the constant knowledge of my victory over the rival for her affections. She came into the house in tears after her first trip to the garden. When I casually asked her what was wrong, she led me out to the garden and pointed out the green man plaque. The brass had corroded, the enamel had blackened and cracked. Shards of the plaque had fallen away, leaving little that still resembled her lover. I told her I would look into having it restored, although I knew I would never follow through on the task. I didn’t want to take any chances that restoring the plaque would somehow bring him back. She was glum for a while, but her sadness did not last as long as I was expecting it to. It turned out that this was because she had a new distraction. In a month’s time, Syl surprised me with something that made her forget all of her troubles. She was pregnant. To those who were none the wiser, this was no doubt the result of our fertility treatments. I knew better. Syl hadn’t let me touch her in weeks. The fertility treatments had nothing to do with her conception. It was the green man who was responsible for that. I’m likely the only one, other than my wife who knows the truth. As the new life grows within her, she has become cheery, her lost love all but forgotten. She is more amorous towards me now than she was before he took her in the garden, and she is a far better lover for that experience. I like these changes and part of me forgives her betrayal, because of the revitalized joy it has brought both of us. But part of me is equally fearful, and prays every day that this baby will take after his or her mother, rather than its sire. Otherwise, I cringe at the thought of what will happen to the child—the first time when cradled in my arms—we make contact, skin to skin. BIOGRAPHY: Chantal Boudreau, an accountant/author/illustrator, lives in Nova Scotia, Canada. A Horror Writers Association member, she writes horror and fantasy, with more than forty stories published to date, including several novels in three series. Find out more at http://chantellyb.wordpress.com .