The paths wove through the vignettes like veins, around the koi pond, the stone retaining walls, the avenue of white pebbled and sandstone pavers, and down to the creek, where an arched bridge linked to a small island with a treehouse encircled by hundreds of daisies. Rebecca and Stephen had no ambitious landscaping plans when she’d inherited the estate. But after close inspection, they’d discovered the bones of the existing garden, uncovered its harsh lines and soft curves, and, after three long years, had opened their botanical paradise to the public.
Rebecca believed gardens created themselves. Where trees had grown over time and brought more shade, the plants struggling to prosper beneath were moved. Where seeds were dropped, self-sown, and thrived, they were left. Advertisement brochures referred to their garden as ‘a living work of art’. To her, the garden was a structure to sustain life and was in some ways more important than her own. And while she and Stephen won awards for their landscape designs, and were featured on gardening shows and in magazines, there was one vignette of their garden that visitors were forbidden to enter.
They didn’t call it a shrine. It was not a place for prayer or philosophical contemplation, nor was it a dramatic design of artistic whimsy meant to beguile. To call it a tomb was macabre, but the vignette served no other function but entombment. Enclosed by a large hedge, the little garden was invisible to those unaware of its existence, the only way in through a heavy iron gate almost completely covered by vines. It was mid-afternoon. Rebecca stood in front of the gate and removed the heavy brass key from its clasp on her necklace. She inserted it into the aperture within the door, turning it until she heard the familiar sharp click. Heart pounding, she returned the key to her necklace and pushed open the antiquated door.
Over time, Rebecca had learned two things: when her soul and her mind were in peaceful unity, when the needs of each were able to surface, the wild, hidden garden became more pleasing to the eye. Yet when her soul became lost in the vast space of memories and illogical thoughts, the garden appeared to dominate all else, overwhelming and eroding all that was natural and beautiful until it cocooned her so completely she wondered if she would escape.
She knelt in front of the limestone sarcophagus, the only feature of the vignette. A large lotus flower had been carved into the lid. Today was the latter.
“Forgive me,” she murmured. “It’s been a week since I visited.”
Thomas had loved the treehouse. He’d practically lived in it. In the afternoons, Thomas would collect the fallen leaves from the mango trees after school, and he would help her soak, dry, and crush them with her mortar and pestle. She’d sold the concoction at market stalls, along with cuttings of various plants. After they were done, Rebecca would watch through the window as Thomas crossed the little wooden bridge to the island to play.
Rebecca placed her shaking hands on the side of the lid. Her nails were already bitten down to the quick. A muscle twitched involuntarily at the corner of her left eye. She pushed. A gust of musty air erupted from the sarcophagus. Rebecca gagged, pushing the entire lid open far enough to illustrate its contents. Eyes watering, she leaned over and pulled down the blue fleece blanket.
Thomas had worn a perplexed expression that never seemed to change. “Why won’t the frogs talk to me? Are plants nice or mean? What would happen if we woke up one day and the garden had disappeared?” Sometimes, Rebecca would tell him the truth. Other times she’d make up fantastical answers he’d believe for days until finally discovering the truth. Despite all the people who visited their garden over the years, and all the various fascinating questions they asked about agronomy and horticulture, no one had been as interesting or inquisitive as he.
It hadn’t taken long for him to drown. Rebecca had been re-potting sansevieria’s on the back veranda to bring inside, glancing up at him now and then as he chased the butterflies amongst the hundreds of daisies. She’d gone inside to use the bathroom and hadn’t seen him trip and fall into the creek. She hadn’t heard the frenzied splash as she struggled to keep himself afloat. Stephen had been out that day picking up eggshell-white paint for the rose trellis he was building. He hadn’t heard the scream tear through Rebecca like a shard of glass.
Rebecca placed a gentle hand on the boy’s face. They hadn’t wanted him to decompose, and to bury him would be a waste. The hori-hori sat on a stump of a felled tree. The concaved stainless-steel soil knife was heavily serrated, designed for cutting roots and splitting perennials. She picked it up and held it to Thomas’ index finger, the last remaining digit on his right hand.
After lengthy research, Rebecca had discovered human remains had high alkaline and sodium content and therefore prohibited absorption of the nutrients essential to plants. She’d considered purchasing a soil cremation mixture, which lowered the pH levels of the soil and diluted the sodium content of the ashes, but that would mean burning Thomas’ body. She didn’t want to draw unwanted attention. So, she and Stephen decided the easiest thing was to expose their plants directly to nitrogen, which meant distributing his body parts around the garden.
Rebecca didn’t blink as the knife severed his little finger. She didn’t flinch as she severed his optic nerves. She didn’t cry as she carefully removed his left eye and set it in a jar of water. Tears were of little use to a garden. She pressed her lips to his head and covered it with the blanket, then slowly closed the sarcophagus lid. She’d wait until Stephen returned to tend to the garden. They’d repot the foxtail together.