With the most pristine of clarity do I recall the way those towering trees would taunt and sway, the suspended canopy of dappled dahlias overtop Mr. Mohsen’s garden a moving wonder. It was said the man could propagate almost anything.
The garden was a source of great pride for those of Withaste, whose earlier days were said to contain not even the smallest bit of greenery. “Not a leaf,” as my mother would say. And yet, for me Mr. Mohsen’s garden was central to the curiosities of my youth. After all, my path home would lead me directly past those walls of brick, ancient and archaic, whose pitted stone and craggy exterior gave hint to the earliest days of the city and its oldest District of Withaste.
I was a small child when I first heard rumor of the garden: a place said to be free from time, from winter’s touch. According to rumor, even the feeblest of flowers would endure through Echishire’s chill so long as they were within sight of the garden. Folks believed them so much they sometimes carried seeds past it, thinking it might spur something miraculous in them. There was much to wonder about the garden. For one, no one knew for certain when it began, or how it developed—only that it had been around for as long as Mr. Mohsen, who had himself propagated it, and seemed able to propagate just about anything, being that everything he grew grew to excess, and that he had been in the city longer than any could recall.
It was rare to catch sight of the man. After his wife fell ill, and eventually passed as a result of what most believed to be the fault of the Culling, what were previously normal sightings became notable: collected things to be treasured and thought fondly of, shared around dinner tables for guests hungry for gossip. But being that my father was Withaste’s only doctor, and it was he who was called to tend to Mrs. Mohsen during her final days—Mr. Mohsen having waited abnormally long to address the illness—gossip was less needed than consolement; for in spite of the aggressive treatments conducted, little was fostered in the way of a remedy, or so said my father, one evening after supper whilst I overheard my mother and he talking.
“Curious thing, that case of Mrs. Mohsen.”
My mother’s swift condolences were quickly brushed off and instead answered with further analysis from the doctor.
“Woman’s body looked a mess. Hair gone, fingernails too. Bare as bones, damn near. She looked a mess,” my father said again, shaking his head solemnly as he lapped up the amber liquid from his glass; my mother’s attempt at grasping his arm foiled by his reaching again for the bottle.
“Alive one day, then withered the next. Shriveled up, you might say, like a plant without water.”
“Terrible,” my mother’s voice muttered, shifting her shoulders as if shifting off an uncomfortable weight. “Did you get a chance to see it?”
“See what?” My father’s distant voice murmured.
“The garden,” my mother said meekly, looking this way and that: anywhere but his eyes. But had she, had she taken the time, she would have seen they were hopelessly distant, impossibly dark.
“No.” He answered her simply. “No, I didn’t.”
That was the last time Mr. Mohsen and his garden were ever talked about in our house.
Despite this, my curiosity only grew worse, for there were always more rumor. Legend spread by country bumpkins believing to be better than their Outaways’ relatives, simply because their house was made of stone and not wood. Rumors about Mr. Mohsen having vines that stretched from his fingers and eyes as green as the ivy-drenched brick that surrounded his oasis; rumors that the children at my school believed; rumors that I knew none of which were true. For if you were wise enough, and patient-like, you could catch sight of him sure as any other soul in Echishire, and see that he had none of these things.
My first time seeing Mr. Mohsen was not intentional. I had been sent home from school (I always was a bit hard at hearing when I wanted to be, and thus I hadn’t heard the call to come back in from playing like the other kids had). I was walking home, crossing from Fellowship to the crummy streets of Withaste, when I saw it: a grand white wagon, out from which towered trees of all shapes and colors and flowers, whose petals looked like rubies. It was clambering from out this truck that I saw the oldest man I’d ever seen.
His eyes looked like dried raisins—in fact, the whole of his face did—along with speckled splotches where it looked like the sun had settled too long. I couldn’t say what color his eyes were; certainly not green, like others had claimed. He was dressed simply: a white shirt browned from soil, and pants whose knees were stained green from hours spent digging in the grass; boots that carried mud here and there and everywhere, all along the street, and a sunhat that shaded the majority of his face. He was carrying something in past the gate while watched him wave off the driver of the wagon. Before going back in, he paused to pick up the dirt he’d left in the road.
That was the first time I saw Mr. Mohsen outside of his garden. The next wouldn’t be for a few years, in the interim of which I grew to the age of twelve and had advanced in my schooling so that I need not walk to class every day, but only in the afternoons and evenings, when the sun had set in the summertime and I, being the only girl my age in the summer program, was the the only one not caught in the immense heat that plagued the stone city. It was on such a night when I was walking home—the stars were out, though the sun had not yet set. My walk found me enjoying the warm hue of orange that fell overtop each and every stone surface; the glimmering sea that shone above illuminated the thin cobblestone road which lazily wound its way back into Withaste. On such a night, I was thinking of Mr. Mohsen’s garden.
I had heard from a friend that the garden was a dark place, a haunted place. Anyone who grows up in a small town is familiar with such tales and their propensity to be added to drab places with the hopes that others will mistake their simplicity for concealment; all the same, I found myself taking the path less traveled, so that I might pass by the garden I had not seen for many years just for the fun of it. I remember the moon above was bright, and the breeze that drifted through soft and warm. My shoes click-clacking on the stone road beneath was the only sound heard, save for that of crickets far off in the Outaways.
It was not a long time until I was met with the first signs of the garden; these were mainly the influx of insects that seemed to hang about the place, buzzing and whirring to a deafening effect. I quickly found myself overtaken, swatting at this and swatting at that as mosquitos and gnats plagued my every step. I was nearly at the point of turning back when I saw the first green vine at my feet. Stopping, I reached down to touch it, only to follow its tail into the larger nest of vines that draped down around the brick like tangled hair. From these vines sprouted wondrous flowers of a soft golden hue. Though I had been away for some years, the garden had not lost its magic; and indeed, at the older age I was, my appreciation of its queerness was immense: how could such a thing endure in spite of all that stood against it? Gardens were unheard of in Withaste, mainly due to the intense heat that the stonework achieved, as well as the lack of soil and natural nourishments; and yet, here stood Mr. Mohsen’s garden: that place unlike any I’d ever seen. My current view found me staring at two brick walls intercepted by a large wooden door, a barn door, whose iron lock was more than enough to convince people that the place was magical; after all, who locks away a garden for safekeeping? Then again, at least in Withaste, who wouldn’t? But this was not all the impenetrable fortress it seemed; the walls that towered about the garden were rumored to have random loose bricks in it, such that one misstep would find you careening down into the rosebushes said to grow on the opposite side.
Against this wall I leant myself, taking a silent second to count my way up from the bottom: one, two three, four; then three over: one-two-three; and then one across, until my fidgeting fingers chose a single brick apart from the rest. I held my breath as I proceeded to press against it, lightly at first, then firmer and firmer until I felt it give way, budging just barely enough so that an observer could descry it from the rest; on my face a blossoming grin. After this, I used my fingernails to pick at the thing until it came away from the wall and landed into my hands—this method taught to me by one of my school friends years ago, who said theirs had taught them.
I had now earned myself a rare glimpse in through the brick wall that held Mr. Mohsen’s garden, though to my immediate disappointment, it was only of a green veil. Surely the garden must have grown in the years since my last peek. I breathed a sigh of disappointment, ready to place the brick back and be on my way, for the night had grown late and my parents would surely be cross should I not return before supper. I was just placing the brick back into place when I thought I heard something move within the canopy before me. I held my breath, and held off on returning the brick, quickly looking this way and that to ensure none else was aware of my whereabouts. Another second or two elapsed before I heard it again. Then, again—closer. It sounded like a thin cry, as if some small creature were moving, shifting through the dense garden inside. I placed my ear to the gap in the wall and listened intently, hearing only the faint sway of the canopy beyond and my own heartbeat. Then, again: I heard it.
What was first believed to be a thin cry from some creature suddenly turned to whispering: a fevered, fervent sound that seemed to bleat out into the darkness. So startled was I by this sound, that I darted back away from the wall, still holding the missing brick as I strained to hear any more, but nothing came. Nothing for a long while, until again the same sound; sometimes quieter, sometimes straining, as if it were trying to keep itself quiet but unable to. I stood there outside the garden for some few minutes, until I felt a pang of panic for having been out so late. Quickly I set the brick back into position and made off into the night, thinking of little else apart from the sound I heard coming from Mr. Mohsen’s garden: that enigma of a place, whose rumors of being haunted suddenly sounded not so very far-fetched after all.
Alas, my education and upbringing proved to me that in order to reach a concise consensus, one must conduct multiple experiments, so as to better rule in or out the possibility of contamination, or to achieve empirical truth. Indeed, I was my father’s daughter. Thus it was that I found myself planning to return to Mr. Mohsen’s garden the next full moon, when I might have a better chance of seeing what exactly dwelled behind those brick walls, and what it was to blame for the wretched noise the garden produced. In the time it took for the next full moon to arrive, I set myself the task of stealing a few of my father’s tools, so that I might hope to pierce the impregnable wall of Mr. Mohsen’s garden with ease. My attempts at convincing my friends of what I had witnessed the previous night were answered by intense scrutiny and ridicule. “You thought heard voices, huh, Charlie May? Don’t you ‘spect that some sort of madness you got inside you?” “Mr. Mohsen’s a swell-enough guy—I’ve met him on several occasions,” boasted one boy, who was quickly deemed all too proud to remain part of the immediate friend group.
Another was more receptive to the idea: my close friend at the time, George, who had shared with me the rumors of the Garden being haunted in the first place. It was agreed that we would both go the following full moon, so that we might verify the truth of my first experience. Whether George truly believed what I said I heard the night before was of little concern to me; that I had a friend, someone with whom I might share the experience with, was all the more important. I endured a sleepless set of nights before the one came when we were to sneak out. Indeed, I had never done such a thing, and when my first foot touched ground beyond that of my shadowed home, I felt a thrum of nervous thrill rush through me, followed swiftly by immense dread at the proposition of having to hear the sound from Mr. Mohsen’s Garden again. Quickly I made my way through the narrow alleyways and streets that lined Withaste, the stone beneath my bare feet warm from its exposure to the sun. My path to Mr. Mohsen’s took me past George’s, and soon enough I was watching his blonde head squeezing through the side gate of his parent’s house; a widened grin present on his face as he approached. We shared a brief nod before making for Mr. Mohsen’s. It was a short walk made to feel longer because of the deafening quiet we maintained for the majority, up until reaching sight of the brick wall ahead, and the towering canopy that protruded up from it, and the deafening sound of insects hovering above: a sound that altogether seemed to die as we neared the wall.
“There it is,” I whispered, pointing out the brick I had used to peek through. “Last time, the noises started soon after I removed it.”
“Were they speaking to you?” George whispered, a hint of hesitation present in his voice.
“Yeah,” George said, looking warily on towards the garden’s walls above. “The voice—was it talking to you?”
I looked at him, puzzled. “I don’t think so,” I whispered at last. “It seemed like it was just happening, like maybe it had been before I removed the brick and I just happened to look in when things were quiet and it had nothing to say.”
This response seemed to calm George, who took a step towards the brick wall and soon found himself where I had poked through last time.
“Here?” he whispered, pointing to one of the bricks.
“No,” I whispered back. “Four—three—no, yes—that one.” Now some few feet away, I looked up and down the road nearest us, and saw no sign nor soul of life, save for the gently swaying garden that lay beyond us. Behind me, George was busy working at the brick. Elapsed seconds began to feel like wasted hours before I finally abandoned my post and turned to face him.
“What are you doing?”
“It isn’t—budging,” he grimaced, struggling with both fingers to snatch the brick from its position within the wall. “You sure this is it?”
“Positive,” I said, recognizing with ease the scratches where I had dug with my nails the last time. I moved forward and soon had the brick removed and held in hand.
“Thanks,” he muttered, poking his head towards the square gap left by the brick. “This is where you heard it?”
“Just there,” I said, taking another look around. The wind was quieter than it had been upon my last visit, and the moon above brighter.
“I don’t see anything,” he said after a few seconds of staring.
“Right,” I said, nodding faintly. “Remember: I said I heard something; I never said I saw anything.”
“Then why remove the brick?” he asked, a bit too loud for my liking. A tense silence passed before I offered an answer.
“Because that’s what seemed to work last time. I figured we should do the same thing I did last time so that if it works we know why.”
“Smart,” George grinned.
“Thanks,” I said coolly, turning away to face the road. “Anything?”
“Just running water,” he answered.
“Mr. Mohsen must have a pond or something,” I nodded. “That would only make sense.”
“Bet he has an entire ocean in there,” George scoffed, shifting one foot from the next.
“Anything?” I asked after some time had passed.
“Not a peep. You sure this is the right garden?”
I ignored the comment, deciding instead to begin pacing back and forth beyond the brick wall, all the while running my finger along it. George remained stationed where he was: eyes trained on the gap, through which Mr. Mohsen’s garden loomed. It was after some time, just when I was considering abandoning the idea of hearing something, that I caught sight of George’s hand frantically beckoning me near him. I silently advanced, and he shifted over, so that we might both peer with one eye into the garden. Upon first sight, I was unaware of any difference to the same green veil I had seen obstructing my view from the night before: all that loomed beyond was green. That is, until I heard George faintly whisper, “Watch.”
I did, and soon I felt George’s chest beside me expand, before there was expelled a great gust of wind, and the green veil before us was temporarily blown away, so that a greater view into the garden was granted. A brief span—only a few seconds, the duration of his breath—gave sight to the most incredible thing I have ever yet seen. A wondrous paradise, complete with a grand pond, as we had expected, around which bloomed countless roses of unseen beauty and complexions: reds and yellows glittered in the moonlight, while violet purples and intense pinks coated the surrounding forestry. Curling trees sprouted upwards and held in their lofty branches many more blooming things of beauty; all around, intense colors were inflamed by the light of the moon, while the faint glimmer to the untouched pond reflected the starry sky that had been all but forgotten amongst the beauty of that hidden place. All this and more were enough to evoke awe, but these could not be attributed to the sudden gasp of air inhaled—that which sent the canopy before us drooping once more, such that our glimpse into the garden was ended: Mr. Mohsen, standing some several feet away, leant over a sprouting shrub, was to blame.
In his frail hands he held a pair of trimmers, whose sharpened blades glimmered in the light of the moon. He had not heard us—or so we were almost certain, given our silence—though his exact whereabouts were not known now that we could see only the green veil. George and I quickly resumed our post, each instinctively taking turns so that the other might see. It was on this second turn that I gathered a lengthy glimpse of the mysterious gardener, George all the while blowing. He had moved since our last sight of him and was now closer; a long enough stare proved that he had no such appendages of ivy or weeds; that he was indeed the very same raison-faced man whom I saw all those years ago. He was currently walking along a thin path that wound deeper into the foliage. After a few steps, he was lost beyond our sight, and we were once more forced to abandon our post for lack of air.
“Did—you—hear—anything?” George asked through heaving breaths.
“No,” I whispered, racing to gather my own. “But I want another look.”
The face George made that this request was something akin to misery; he standing between myself and the brick, as if to say “Please, not again.” But I pushed past him, and soon enough we were back at our posts, each straining on our tippy toes to see through the brick. A period of about ten minutes passed, in whose duration little was said or commented on. The night crickets that surrounded us were all about, such that a slow crescendo was building. George commented that he hated crickets; I said they’d never done anything wrong to me. It was sometime after this exchange, when George’s tensed shoulders suddenly relaxed, and my craned neck required a good cracking, that we decided it was time to go.
“Could be every other full moon,” George offered as we set to placing the brick back into its gap.
“Could be,” I murmured, tongue out as I busied myself with trying to fit the brick back in.
“We won’t tell them about tonight,” George suddenly said, causing me to pause in my pushing the brick back.
LThey don’t need to know about it,” he said, turning to grin at me. “And, as far as I’m concerned, one time isn’t enough to rule out anything; this place is still creepy, with or without voices…”
At this I nodded faintly, before turning my focus onto getting the brick back in. My opinion of George Ettenberg up to that moment was a bit of a mixed bag. His family was well-known throughout Withaste—better still in Fellowship, where just last January his younger brother, Timothy, was among the first to be buried prior to the Culling. I had always assumed he was like his older brothers, who maintained a mean-spirit that found them often and again in trouble, but this latest comment altered that perception entirely. I found myself returning the grin, and soon we were warmly looking off towards where our path home awaited us.
We were indeed about to begin that way, when suddenly there drifted down from above a faint sound through the brickwork. Upon being asked to recall the sound I heard when first peering in through the garden, I described it as a kind of hushed lullaby—though one doubtless sung by someone who wasn’t a particularly good singer. It was on this second listen that I realized what I had heard before was in fact not a lullaby—not at all—but instead a wailing cry, a mournful plea that seemed to bleed out from that darkened space beyond George Ettenberg and me. I could feel all of George’s body tense up as we returned to our posts, each taking turns, so that the other might focus their attention on listening. But with the crescendo of crickets and the wind in my ear, I soon told George to stop, and together we shared in what little silence was leftover: a silence that contained in it somewhere a horrid sound—that of wailing, of screaming, and then, following this were a string of curses: vulgar language that seemed summoned from the most hateful hell imaginable. A muffled scream erupted, choked and gurgling, and with it a grotesque sound like snapped bones. I soon felt myself being held by George, whose trembling form was soaked through in sweat as each of us listened in on the madness that existed beyond that green canopy, behind those ancient brick walls. Without word we began to run. Off and into the night we went, until Mr. Mohsen’s garden was but a small spec in the distance. Strange, though it was, it seemed the sounds we’d heard followed us all the way to George’s house, for neither of us could seem to get it out of our heads.
“Are you certainly certain, Ms. Charlie May?” Davie Diggins sniggered.
“Are you incapable of keeping quiet?” I snapped.
“Ease off, okay? We’re almost there,” George Ettenberg said as he leveled his sights ahead of us, shaking his tensed shoulders as if a man preparing to walk into the mouth of hell.
“No,” I sighed, turning back to face Wilma Washington.
“And that isn’t it either?”
“If it was, we would’ve stopped.”
It was over three months later that the four of us were making our way back to Mr. Mohsen’s Garden. The summer heat had all but burned off, though still every night brought out the chirping crickets and the ribbiting toads of the distant Outaways. It should have been assumed that no one would believe the story George Ettenberg and I told about the night we spent outside Mr. Mohsen’s garden, and the horrid things we heard coming from it. Our best course of action would have been to just keep the whole thing to ourselves, but at the instigation of Davie Diggins, who seemed bent on discounting the whole thing as a fever dream, and calling me mad, I bit the bait and told him, and he in turn told several others, who asked George his side of the story. To my displeasure, George’s story slightly differed from mine; to George, the sound we’d heard was not a muffled scream, but instead a cheery laugh; and so it was decided that we would have to return again, so that I might not be deemed mad, and so that George would have to admit he had made up the laugh he claimed to have heard that night. Joining the group was Wilma Washington—a girl from out of town, whose curiosities about Mr. Mohsen’s Garden had everything to do with her curiosities with Davie Diggins. Three months found all of us sneaking out, convening together in the creekside alleyway, known as Skunk Tail. I led the way, followed by George, who was flanked by Davie and then Wilma at the end.
Our path took us the opposite way we’d come before—Davie’s idea, naturally—and so we instead came upon the other side of Mr. Mohsen’s garden, where the front face of his house could be viewed. Unlike his garden, which evoked gasps upon sight, whistles were all that were exchanged, for the front of his house looked as if it belonged to nobody, and had in fact never housed much of anything. The roof was sunken in, there being small portions where it had actually fallen through. The front door was badly chipped. The gutters were filled to the brim with something foul-smelling, and the eaves too. A graveyard of fallen bricks gathered about the bottom of its base, where dead dirt seemed to whisk away any notion of their being a water source nearby. And the windows of the house, of which there were only two, had in them bits and pieces of furniture sticking out, such that it seemed the house had eaten itself full of chairs and tables and was now near to bursting. Upon first sight of it, I found myself wondering why no one ever talked about this side of Mr. Mohsen’s house. The only thing ever mentioned about the man was the beauty of his garden; and while it might have been tempting to claim that those humble folks of Withaste only cared about the positives of its people, I knew better. Perhaps none had ever bothered to look at the front. I was in the pits of contemplation when I heard Davie whispering to Wilma.
“What did you say?”
Davie turned to face me. His clever face always was ready for confrontation.
“What did I say about what, Charlie May?”
“Well you were whispering, weren’t you? I can only assume it was about me; you never can seem to keep my name from out your mouth,” I said, glaring all the while.
“I’ve said nothing about you!” he exclaimed, all too loudly for George, who was quick to shush him.
“You want to wake the old man?” he said, turning a wary look back towards the house.
Davie clutched his heart, as if mortally offended. “I stand accused, when I have committed no crime!” he cried, raising his voice just to get a rise out of George. Wilma was more than hesitant to interject, and so she instead chose that time to try fixing Davie’s curled hair from out his face.
“Fine,” I snapped, loosening my tensed jaw and shoulders. “What were you saying?”
Davie’s crossed arms were around him faster than Wilma’s would have liked to be.
“Can’t remember,” he smirked.
“Oh you can’t, can you?”
“Shhh!” George suddenly whispered at the two of us. “I thought I heard something…He could be anywhere.”
“Just tell her,” Wilma said, now having finished her playing with Davie’s hair.
“Don’t think I will,” he mumbled.
A stint of silence was exchanged between the two of us before it was interrupted by a sound coming from outside the house beyond. The noise caused all of us to flinch; the worst being George, who fell fully to the ground, covering his head with his hands. Staring off in that direction, I could just faintly make out the shape of Mr. Mohsen, whose weather-worn hat could not be mistaken as being anyone else’s. He was dragging something large and heavy, stopping only to close shut the gate behind him. Whatever it was he was dragging sounded eerily hollow, and before he set it down beside the front porch, he seemed to dote over it, just as he seemed to all his flowers and pretty things. In the meantime, we stayed crouched in silence, watching until he disappeared back around the side of the house, somewhere deeper into the shadows. The faint, rattling click of the lock serving as our only sign that he was well and truly gone.
“I told you,” George whispered, so faint now that he had to say it twice to be sure any of us had heard it. “I told you—he could be anywhere.”
“Wherever he is, he isn’t by where he was dragging that thing anymore,” I said, nodding in the direction of where we saw Mr. Mohsen go. “I want to take a look.”
“You always want to take a look,” George whined. “I’d rather not.”
“Well, you don’t have to,” I said, shrugging my indifference.
“I’ll go with,” Davie suddenly offered, evoking a scowl from me and an anxious look from Wilma, who I’d once more forgotten was with us.
“I’m fine to go alone,” I muttered, crossing my arms coldly.
“No one is fine to go alone,” he countered, shooting a glance over at George, who was still staring off in the direction towards Mr. Mohsen’s garden. “Like he said, Mr. Mohsen could be anywhere.”
And so it was decided that it would be myself and Davie Diggins to go and inspect the unseen object. We wound our way through a brief bit of deadened bramble before reaching the dilapidated fence that outlined the property. Beneath this we slid, until our backsides were dusty with dirt and our breath uneven, for at the last moment an entire side of the structure collapsed, such that one of us need hold it up for the other. Much like the rest of the property, the porch that preceded the front door was covered in a thin layer of dust and dirt, and thus left footprints as we clambered up and onto it, neither of us speaking a word. A nervous glance around found no one else about, save for George and Wilma, whose awkward shapes I could see just faintly outlined by the silver sliver of moonlight poking through a wayward cloud.
The thing lay at the precipice of the porch and was cast in such stygian shadow that not a detail could be made about it, save that it must have been of considerable size and weight, given how slowly Mr. Mohsen was seen dragging it; but then again, it remained unclear how old the old man was, and how much of his age had impacted his strength. Many said older than Withaste itself, though others claimed he was near to well past the age of one hundred. As to the house, this much was certain: it once belonged to a widow rumored to have lived there until she too had grown old and dilapidated. Whether she was of relation to Mr. Mohsen was unknown, though it was said that she never did leave the premises, and at one point grew so old and weary that caretakers were needed to erect her from bed, dragging her out much in the same way as had Mr. Mohsen the dark shape, which Davie Diggins was now approaching with caution. I soon saddled beside and joined him in peering down at where it lay below the sunken roof that held the porch.
“Can’t imagine it comes from the garden,” I heard him murmur.
“What makes you say that?”
“Sounded metallic to me.”
“Sounded hollow to me.”
“I think you’re hearing things again—like those voices you keep raving about.”
“I turned to face him, locking eyes with those that glimmered and shone beneath the moonlight. A clever look was about them, as if he had been hoping I’d look at him.
“Why did you even bother coming if you thought I was lying?”
Davie Diggins, before grinning, suddenly allowed the crooked thing to slip from its immense height. “I spent a summer working for Mr. Mohsen,” he said, turning his gaze away from the garden and towards the house behind us, where its darkened windows took on the look of hollow eyes. “Not there, but there,” and pointed to the second story. “There was a wall he needed taken out; it was rotting and was beginning to stink something awful. My father volunteered my brother and me for the job, and soon I was there every afternoon, working away on removing the brick and rotten timber that was leftover. I didn’t see much of Mr. Mohsen in that time. Mrs. Mohsen was rumored ill, and so I didn’t see much of her, either.”
I nodded as we both paused to listen to the night crickets. Though my eagerness to see what it was hidden beneath the darkness was considerable, my desire to learn the reason for Davie’s sudden change of mood was of a greater consideration. To allow me into this secret was unlike the boy I knew; it was more his pleasure to enjoy teasing me with the information until I either called it quits and acted as if I didn’t care or bribed him for it. I half-expected more of a fight, but looking at him, it was evident he was indeed ready to share something, whether it be the concealed secret or otherwise.
“There was one day when I stayed longer than normal,” he continued. “The portion of brick I had been working on was a stubborn block—took me the better part of six hours to remove the half of it. I was loading it into the wheelbarrow, pushing past a part of the house I hadn’t been to cuz Mr. Mohsen forbade it, when I heard something coming from the downstairs. I knew Mrs. Mohsen was ill, but I thought she was recovering quickly. Mr. Mohsen’s mood was up and chipper than ever; he even stopped me that morning to show me a new flower he had just bought: a strange, tall thing that looked otherworldly. I’m no expert, but I bet not another flower its equal grows anywhere near here. I went down the stairs a bit—just to see what it was I had heard. I came to an ajar door and there was Mrs. Mohsen, lying up in bed with the sheets all drawn around her like an entombed mummy. Before her was that same plant—that flower Mr. Mohsen had showed me just the day before. It had grown since I last saw it and was now taller than me; before, it had barely even blossomed. I saw it moving a little, swaying like there was a breeze, but there was none. Despite a good ear beating from my father, I quit the next day, and never went back.”
He paused to catch his breath, still staring up at the house above.
I looked at him quizzically. “What do you mean there was no breeze? How did the flower move then?”
He stared at me, silent.
“Did you tell anyone about it?”
“Me? Who would believe it?”
“Yes, who would believe you,” I said, pausing to appreciate the fact that if Davie Diggins were to ever come to me talking about some moving plant, I probably would think he’d only made it up, that or gone mad. “Why did you come tonight?” I suddenly asked.
Davie flashed me a knowing look. “I told my brother about our trip to Mr. Mohsen’s Garden tonight, about what you said about hearing the voices. He said he’s heard them too. The noises, when he was working for Mr. Mohsen.”
I flashed him a curious look.
“After I quit, he took over the work and started on the downstairs basement, which had a leaky pipe that needed fixing. Night after night he spent in that basement, in the hot summer heat. Said he rarely ever saw Mr. Mohsen except when he needed help carrying something, usually a large pot or a plant; that, at night, there sometimes drifted a breeze down from over the brick wall and into the basement, and that the breeze carried smells he’d never experienced before. He would go every night, sometimes until the sun rose and it was day again, all the time working at the leaky pipe, all the time smelling those smells. He kept going even after the pipe had been fixed. When I asked him why he kept going, he just said he needed to be there, that the garden was a place he liked being near.
“Shortly after Mrs. Mohsen died, Mr. Mohsen ordered a large bouquet of mourning flowers, as well as having a mason craft a plain headstone that my brother helped carry into the garden. My brother said he thought Mr. Mohsen had been at the drink, cuz he smelled something sour and had a strange muttering fit about him as they carried the heavy stone. Why he wanted a plain headstone was never explained, but soon after that my brother went back to the garden, deciding on a night when the moon was full and he might have an easier time seeing the flowers that poked over the side walls. He went alone, as he had been doing for the last few weeks of summer. That night was cold. My brother saw that the door to the garden was left open. He said, of all the times he had been there, not once was the front gate ever left open without Mr. Mohsen being nearby; it always had a heavy lock of iron fixed to its barn door, and always he dared not fiddle with it, for fear of the old man overhearing.
“Well, seeing as the gate was open, and no doubt worried that something terrible had become of Mr. Mohsen after his time with the drink, my brother went in through the gate, quietly creeping his way up a small cobblestone path overgrown by moss. He said he’d never seen so much green. From the walls and the ceiling grew ivy like hair, and down from above sank wildflowers so large and grand and heavy-looking that he dared not touch them, dared not even breath on them, for fear that they might break and fall down. He said they heard some strange thing deeper inside, said that he’d never quite heard sounds like those, nor could he ever bring himself to forget them. A loud buzzing. The air hurt to listen to. What was weirdest to him about the garden was the lack of brick that lived inside it; when looking at it from the outside, it’s easy enough to distinguish brick from natural growth—you would never confuse the two—but he told me that when he went deeper in, he could see no signs of brick anywhere; that there were little to no signs of humanity at all; the whole thing looked like some kind of fairytale jungle. My brother has an imagination, sure, but I believe what he said, cuz when he began telling me these things, and recounting in great detail all these parts of the garden, he started to weep. My brother is never that sort. To see him in such a state told me everything I need to know about Mr. Mohsen’s garden—well, almost everything,” he said, flashing me another grin. “I pressed him no further, and he said no more of what he saw that night. He told me I shouldn’t go, that I would regret it if I did. But ever since you mentioned the voices, I’ve wanted to hear them for myself.”
I took a moment to stare at Davie Diggins, who’s normally smirking face, ever clever and cunning, looked deflated, as if he had been punctured by some sharp object, and was now releasing the last of his hot air. I cannot with great clarity recall what it was that brought our conversation to an end. Perhaps it was the waning moon, or the scratching limb of an extended bough draping down from the garden, or something else that leant itself to spooking us out of our comfort; regardless, I soon found myself beside Davie: the two of us extended over the thing in shadow, that which we witnessed being dragged, only to now identify it as a fallen tree, whose bark and limbs were so stiff so as to resemble sheet metal. A curious look was exchanged between us before we both decided to make off back for the group, though not until after noticing the barn door Mr. Mohsen had entered through, which despite its iron lock, had been left partially ajar.
Quickly, we headed back to the others. As we walked, I contemplated the things Davie Diggins had told me, and came to the conclusion that he was teasing me, and that the entire thing was a rude ruse. I wouldn’t put it past him to be able to put on a believable front: his brothers were infamous for their own trickery in town.
Soon enough, the hunched forms of George Etenberg and Wilma Washington came into view, and question after question into our recent escapades were fielded as I still processed the ones I harbored.
“What took so long?”
“Did you find the thing?”
“Where is Mr. Mohsen?”
“Did you hear anything strange?”
The last of these was fielded rather quickly by Davie Diggins, whose wariness—or, what I believed was surely an act—was confirmed by the emphatic, “Nope!” he delivered to George’s query. “Haven’t heard nothin he said, flashing a grin that I could see now was hollow.
“Not yet,” I corrected. “But that is not to say we won’t; after all, we aren’t even in the same spot as we were last time. And as to the ‘thing,’ it turned out to be a tree.”
“A tree?” Wilma said, looking curiously betwixt the two of us. “That thing making all the racket?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“The damned thing wouldn’t budge an inch. It was like a body that’s died and gone stiff,” Davie Diggins said, scratching his chin.
“And how would you know what that’s like—a dead body, I mean,” George said, giving him a scathing look of curiosity, flashing to me a look of winning discernment.
“I know because I’ve seen dead bodies before, and you can be sure that they are all stiff as a rock after some time spent being dead.”
No one said anything for awhile after this, as memories of Davie’s dead brother swept upon us; though the sound of chirping crickets returned in full.
“And what about the tree? Was there anything unique about it? Why was he dragging a tree in the middle of the night?” Wilma suddenly asked.
“Maybe he prefers to work when the weather is cool,” George offered.
“It’s possible,” I nodded.
The four of us, after much hesitation from George, at last began heading towards the gated garden’s barn door, from which there bled a miasma of sound: here, a creaking toad; there, a wailing bird; and over and again the sounds of leaves lazily lapping upon one another: these noises fit for a jungle, here at the outskirts of Withaste.
Soon enough, we arrived at the door, where the very same stone steps described by Davie’s brother now played out before us. And just as he’d said, each was coated with moss, such that the stone beneath was but a few speckled spots of grey, and overtop this the faint hue of moonlight trickled down through the overhead canopy, which was indeed so engrossing, that one had to strain in order to pick out a star from the night sky above. I headed in first, followed swiftly by Davie, with George and Wilma taking the rear. It was Davie who noted the strange hum in the air as we hung about the entrance. The softened drone, that once heard could not be forgotten, quickly filled each of us with a sense of unease; and Wilma, who made note of the odd sweetness to the air, was the first who claimed to be feeling suddenly ill. What stood out to me, aside from the queer phenomena previously described, was the dramatic shift in temperature upon passing through the ivy-ridden gate, which was indeed reduced to so dilapidated a state that one of us need hold it for another to open it. Moving past it, what was once a chill evening quickly shifted to that tropical climate of heated humidity, the droplets of sweat gathering about our exposed skin acting as landing points for the insects that plagued our every step. There was something acutely strange about the way the flora and fauna danced in the windless night. Upon looking, one need brace themselves, for the sight alone was enough to disturb even the most robust of minds, as was apparent by George Ettenberg’s shriek upon seeing one of them writhing about. The story Davie told me now returned, though a shade darker.
“This isn’t normal!” George cried aloud, evoking a choir of shushing from the rest of the party, all of whose gazes were drifting about all the time. We were overtaken then by a swift solemnity, whereby the four of us were reduced all to strained breaths, forced in and out by the labor of our waking mind’s fears. In that time, there was little in the way of living, but rather struggling by second—each one longer than the last—until our eternal suffrage was ended by the sudden sound of footsteps coming from afar, somewhere off in the darkened jungle that was Mr. Mohsen’s garden. I cannot with great clarity remember how we found our way to the yawning pond that awaited us, there beneath the drooping boughs of trees whose names were unfamiliar to me, like strangers shifting past the roadside. The water itself was darker than any I’d seen. Drifting about it were a wave of insects: the source of the previous buzzing, now nearly deafening. Turning round, it was as if there never had been a door, nor a house, nor a garden, nor a stone city, but instead a place devoid of human influence; a place beyond that of any world we knew. Indeed, as George had said, it wasn’t normal, but rather about as abnormal as could be.
We huddled together there, hidden amongst the brush and bramble that adorned the sides of that waking pool. Reflected in it were the stars above—stars we had looked to only just before—though now in such a way as to suggest there were far more below than above. A second glance proved that these were in fact the same constellations, the very same, but merely drawn forward, so that they could be seen in greater number, and with supreme clarity. We were only just noticing this irregularity when our attention was drawn back to the sound: that source of fear that sent dripping droplets of dew down our tensed backs and necks the same as the wetted flowers; that same sound that I had heard so long before, and that was to blame for all of us being there that night; it was the same sound Davie’s brother must have heard all those years ago, the story’s validity now undeniable. That sound—a horrid, blood-twisting moan—was what greeted our ears and drove from Wilma a muffled scream which when uttered so loud and in so rushed a manner resembled the very source of our fears. Not a sound from us followed. That which we’d heard was distant, yes, but all too close for any to feel comfortable enough exercising theories. And so we went on crouching, listening, straining our ears to this sound evolving from one scream into several, and several into a wretched choir, the likes of which I could not remove from my mind.
I felt George Ettenberg grabbed my hand; and I, so fearful I’d miss it, drew mine away. Even now I can hear the sound, there waiting at the end of every restless silence, every wandering sentence. All else who were in view saw me poke my head over the gathering of bushes—told me they could see my red hair in the light of the waning moon as if a captured photograph. I peered over, not out of curiosity for my own knowledge, but for that of Withaste; for surely they, if not more than anyone else, deserved to know the mysteries that lurked beyond the brick walls, the source of the muffled screams heard by us wary children too curious for our own good. I peered over, only to see close enough to touch the head and shoulders of Mr. Mohsen, whose muscled arms, tanned from hours in the sun, lithe from years spent tending to a garden no one had ever seen, were attached to gloved hands, hands whose strength was focused round the crushed stems of flowers clutched in their grasp. A horrid shaking was occurring, and from that shaking a muffled scream produced. In that momentary moment, I could neither grasp what it was I was seeing nor absorb in full the terror I was experiencing; it was instead displaced in favor of interpreting the mangled muttering emerging from Mr. Mohsen’s mouth. A string of curses. A cackled laugh. Cheery, it was, and unnatural.
I froze as the murderous gaze, intent on this single life draining, shifted to another, and then all over again I witnessed another murder—this time a rose older, and withered. A shaky breath emerged from the foul mouth that only just before had uttered things so wretched never to be heard again. And then the thing screamed. He grabbed hold of it and squeezed, taking care to pluck thorn from thorn, until the thing lay bare and broken and writhing lifelessly in his shaking hand. It was alive. I gasped as I watched a viscous liquid drip down from its crushed stem. Its pigment and texture could be confused as being little else but blood. Back again, Mr. Mohsen went onto the next series of flowers and spoke to them, talked to them in such a hushed tone so that none but he and these pretty things knew what he was saying. These he did not mangle in the same way as he had the others, but instead continued on until coming to a large flower—the largest I had ever seen—which was set a ways back into the garden, so that one need to strain on their tippy toes to see wherefrom the strange creaking was coming. A sound nearest me alerted me, and I turned to see Davie Diggins, a cold, deadened look about his face, pointing over past me, towards the back of Mr. Mohsen, which had dropped from its previous height so that he was kneeling down before it.
“That’s it!” he nearly screamed. The blood from his face drained so that not a spec of color was left to consume his widened eyes. “The flower, the one I saw—that’s it!”
I turned to look again, surprised to see Mr. Mohsen lower than before, kneeling down before a stone plaque. The plant was tall—taller than any I’d seen —and from its stems there sank a sap like liquid around which gathered flittering flies and insects alike. A closer look—my eyes straining—descried the unusual rotundness of the thing’s body, as if swollen. Then back to the flower itself—what was it hiding, there amongst the bramble and growing vegetation?
A shrill scream—Wilma Washington’s beside me. I looked again, past the deadened eyes of Mr. Mohsen—into the rotting face of Mrs. Mohsen, tucked there within the hidden garden: a place none were allowed to enter; a place where everything grew. From her body pooling blood, down into the gathering pond; the sweet smell of flowers drowning out her rotting form; the whirring buzz of insects about. Her writhing body shifting, alive. We turned as a thousand screams sounded at once. The flowers around us all moved on their own. I turned to face George, whose eyes were hollow like the darkened windows of Mr. Mohsen’s house. Stumbling feet, one after another, and out and onto the darkened streets of Withaste we emerged, leaving behind the barn door and our time in the garden.
I turned to see the last sight of that cursed place: the way those towering trees would taunt and sway, the suspended canopy of dappled dahlias overtop Mr. Mohsen’s garden no longer a moving wonder to me, but forever a veiled nightmare.
And there, Mr. Mohsen’s gaze meeting mine. That man who was said could propagate anything, had indeed his wife.