The Garden – Excerpt

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Of course, the rat, who wasn’t beholden to any of the community rules, dug itself another hole and went outside unimpeded, and since with all the rain and the new wells the harvest was bountiful, everyone had better things to do than follow a rodent around. Fay brought back treats every time he went outside, and the treats were strange, and wonderful, unlike anything Cimmy had ever tasted, even though now the food fare was reasonably palatable.

Some days he brought colorful berries, in many shades of yellow, black, rose, and blue. Other days he brought mushrooms, or delightful tubers. And other days he brought Cimmy herbs she had never seen, and he made sure to never chew on them, to let Cimmy know they were not edible. She didn’t really understand what they were for, those herbs with fleshy roots the color of blood.

There wasn’t a single day that went by when Cimmy didn’t daydream about that fairyland behind the walls, filled with wonders she had never seen, and maybe wasn’t able to imagine, and every time she came back from one of these mental trips to dreamland she wished she’d been born a rat. Fay didn’t have quotas, or traditions, or anyone to tell him what to do. He didn’t even listen to Cimmy, right now it was more like she was listening to him, since the rat had taken it upon himself to educate her in the art of foraging and survival.

“I wonder what the inedible plants are for,” she often pondered.

“Are those weeds?!” Josepha snapped from behind her one day when she was so deeply immersed in the examination of a new plant Fay had brought, whose long filamentous roots looked like gold thread, she completely forgot about the world around her. She tried to hide the clump behind her back, but the gold roots caught the sunlight and glowed, like they had caught on fire. “Every time I look at you you do something wrong, I can’t keep up with your nonsense anymore! You’re going to be the end of me, I’m exhausted just worrying about you! Give those here!” she grabbed the golden roots from Cimmy’s hand and threw them away. “Get back to work, you lazy nincompoop!”

“How come those plants never grow here?” Cimmy wondered, so used by now to talk to herself that she didn’t realize she asked the question out loud.

“You better hope, for your own sake, that we don’t find any of these growing in the field, ‘cause if we do, I know who to blame! Do you think we need more weeds to pull? Aren’t we breaking our backs enough already as it is to keep them from stifling the crops?” she became more and more agitated as she spoke, imagining nightmarish scenarios filled with giant weeds that advanced slowly and inexorably across the fields and choked everything edible in the process.

Cimmy put her head down and waited for the rant to be over. “I wonder if I can replant those in a shady spot, the roots seemed intact, maybe if I water them, they will come back to life,” she continued her mental commentary in the background, this time without the soundtrack, which, as experience had proved, was completely self defeating.

The problem was that she didn’t know anything about the outgrowth of those roots. What if they were invasive? Fay had made it clear they were potentially poisonous, what if their toxins leaked into the soil, what if somebody tried to eat them, somebody who didn’t know they weren’t supposed to. She agonized over the decision for days, during which fate solved the dilemma for her, withering the clump beyond the point where it could be revived.

“Maybe next time,” she consoled herself. She couldn’t escape this nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach that she was missing out on something extraordinary. She couldn’t understand why the rat was bringing her all of those plants, but so far he had never brought anything that didn’t have a usefulness, and not knowing what their usefulness was didn’t seem like a good reason to dismiss them. On one hand, what usefulness could a plant possibly have, if it wasn’t good to eat? The land, as it stood right now, bound by its untouchable boundary, was limited, and every inch of it counted; she couldn’t justify, even to herself, taking up a portion of it to grow something she didn’t know anything about. One didn’t grow something that was not good to eat, it was as simple as that. At times like these she reviled that damned wall whose sacrosanct presence made any new discovery impossible, and which kept her from knowing the truth.

One way or another, she wanted to know. Maybe there wasn’t a great land of wonder beyond, maybe there be monsters and killer weeds eating people alive, maybe there be dragons for all she knew, but she wanted to find out, because every time her sight was blocked by that wall she felt trapped. Surely there was a way to learn the truth without risking getting eaten by carnivorous plants, an obvious solution presented itself: the only thing she had to do was climb up high enough to see past the top of the wall.
Getting anywhere near the enclosure was sure to bring unspeakable wrath upon her head, so she started climbing anything else she could think of, anything she hoped would allow her a peek. She climbed the trees in the orchard, and the roofs of the houses, but none of the above were tall enough to be of any help. Torn between curiosity and guilt, she became more and more withdrawn, and her recent habit of climbing of trees certainly didn’t win her any favors with the community.

“She’s a lunatic!” Bertha commented, exasperated. “She’s going to damage those trees, I tell you, they’re not supposed to hold her weight, there is nothing that that girl does that isn’t either absurd or dangerous, and it’s usually both! What in creation has gotten into her, climbing those trees at any time of day or night? Somebody should do something about that, don’t you think, Josepha? Before she does us harm?”

A ban on tree climbing followed promptly, which left Cimmy indifferent, since she already knew nothing in the orchard was tall enough to fit her purpose anyway. It seemed almost punitive, that boundary, more suited to keep the people in than keep danger out. How would purposefully blinding oneself to the evils of the world improve one’s chances to prevail against them? If one is always in danger from things one can’t learn about, it follows, logically, that there is nothing left to experience but fear, and the most toxic kind of all: the fear which never subsides and can never be quelled, because it feeds on itself.

“What is it made of, anyway?” Cimmy continued churning her obsession, because it looked like the wall was built of large blocks of stone, and there was no stone quarry in the garden. The stepladder pattern made climbing it possible, at least in theory, so she immediately followed up on her idea, managing to ruin her fingernails in the process and taking a couple of tumbles that were sure to prevent her from sitting down for about a week. “You are not the boss of me!” she rebuked the wall before she turned her back to it, defeated, to go in search of another solution.

“Are you talking to the wall, Cimmy?” Rahima intervened softly, worried that her friend had lost her handle on reality.

“Aah…no. Sorry, Rahima, I didn’t see you. How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough to see you try and climb that wall. Are you aware of what Bertha would do to you if she caught you doing this?”

“I have a fair idea,” Cimmy mumbled, upset.

“You know, I’ve been watching you the whole time, and you’re doing it all wrong. You have to find your bearings first, have a firm grip for your hands and feet, otherwise you’ll never make it to the top. Here, let me show you,” she said. She started climbing immediately, without hesitation and with an agility Cimmy would never have guessed her friend possessed. In less than three minutes she was riding the top of the wall.

“Rahima, for heaven’s sake, take a quick look around and get down from there before somebody sees you,” she whispered as loud as she could, without being overheard, “I don’t want to get you in trouble! Rahima!”

“Wow!” was all that Rahima managed to respond, while she looked out into the distance, completely mesmerized by the sights beyond.

“Damn my clumsiness,” Cimmy cussed herself and her two left feet. Physical fitness had never been her strong point, and she’d never viewed this personal shortfall as a burden until now. “If I weren’t so uncoordinated, I’d be seeing that too right now.”

“What do you two think you’re doing?” Bertha’s voice thundered from behind her, sounding too shocked to start with the doling of punishment.

“Oh, God!” Cimmy gulped hard as she watched her friend come down from the top of the wall with the same agility she had exhibited climbing it.

There would be little point in describing the days that followed this event. Suffice it to say that Cimmy and Rahima found themselves tasked with tilling the last portion of virgin land inside the walls, a portion which had been left fallow because the hard dirt, the rocks and the thick clumps of weeds and roots made cultivating it impracticable.

“I’m sorry, Rahima,” Cimmy mumbled, drowning in guilt.

“Don’t mention it, it’s not much worse than my usual chores, anyway.” Rahima looked happy, she had that hard to describe expression people get when they find meaning in their life, a strange look to see on a face so young.

“What is it like?” Cimmy asked, her mouth dry with anticipation.

“I…wouldn’t know how to describe it. It’s so green! It is beautiful, and lush, and it goes on for miles, all the way to the ends of the earth.”

“What do you mean, the ends of the earth?” Cimmy pressed, annoyed by the scarcity of detail.

“You’re not going to believe me if I tell you,” Rahima hesitated.

“Try me!” Cimmy insisted.

“There are open waters out there, Cimmy,” Rahima whispered, as if she was afraid to acknowledge what she’d seen. “Large sheets of water, going far into the distance. There are so many of them, hundreds, maybe even a thousand, and they all seem to end abruptly at an edge that’s far out into the distance. I don’t know if the water is flowing into a void back there, because there isn’t anything you can see past that edge. Nothing but sky.” She stopped to give Cimmy time to process the image she’d just described, complete with the edge of existence, the place beyond which there be dragons.

“We are surrounded by water, Cimmy. It’s everywhere.”

(The Garden – Excerpt)