The Garden – Excerpt

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The next morning, Cimmy woke up in a bed. It was poorly put together from scratchy branches, and, truth be told, the ground had fewer lumps, but sleeping in a bed implied injury or illness of some kind, and she couldn’t remember getting sick. She stood up, stretching her limbs to see if there was anything wrong with them, and, as she remembered from when she went to sleep the night before, everything was working properly. The sun was already high up in the sky and she panicked, wondering how deep her slumber was if she managed to sleep through the customary wake-up rebuke that could raise the dead, but then she noticed that most of the people were still walking around, finishing their morning routine.

She jumped out of bed, with an agility that instantly ruled out illness, cleaned herself up to get ready for the day and ran out to find Rahima and ask her what was going on. She did. Her friend was just finishing up breakfast, which for some reason was served in a bowl. “Who eats roots out of a bowl?” Cimmy asked herself, because they never cooked the tubers, nobody had the patience to wait another second once the precious food was discovered, and, quite frankly, it was a lot easier to keep the precious food for oneself after it reached the stomach.

“Why is everybody still here? What are you eating?” Cimmy asked, almost simultaneously, and her questions were met by her friend’s puzzled stare.

“What do you mean? It’s only seven o’clock, we’re not leaving for the fields for another half hour.” She then turned her gaze to the empty bowl in her lap with increased bewilderment. “What, you mean porridge? We always eat porridge in the morning, you know that! Cimmy, are you unwell?”

“I’m beginning to wonder,” Cimmy said, unsure. “I woke up in a bed this morning.”

“What’s odd about waking up in a bed?”

“Rahima, what do you remember about yesterday?” Cimmy asked tentatively, because once she started looking around, things were a lot stranger than she realized. The rickety cottages seemed to have been rebuilt overnight, there was even a little gathering round in the middle of the village, with a fire pit and rough woven cots to sit on, but the most shocking revelation of all was the field of purple flowers which started right at the edge of their little community and filled all the rest of the space inside the walls.

“Nothing out of the ordinary, as I recall. Why do you ask?”

“You don’t remember us talking about the purple flowers?” Cimmy hesitated to ask, because in the light of the obvious, her question seemed patently absurd. Clearly, the crop of purple thistles couldn’t have reached blooming time overnight, and the fact that she didn’t remember it being there the day before put her memory into question, not Rahima’s.

“Why would we ever talk about this curse upon the land!” Rahima twitched, irritated. “That’s all we ever see, and all we ever have, and all we ever eat, this scratchy excuse of a meal, sometimes I am so sick of it I would rather eat nothing at all! What’s gotten into you?”

Cimmy didn’t know how to respond, so she said nothing. It now stood to reason that everything around them was made of thistle stalks, which explained the lumpy mattress, and the rough cots, and the thistle seed porridge. She was so mesmerized by the beautiful image of the purple tufts swaying in the wind that she gaped at them, wide mouthed, for minutes, until Rahima shook her out of her reverie.

“What happened to the tubers?” Cimmy couldn’t help ask.

“You mean those horrible bitter roots? Why do you care?”

“That’s what we used to eat,” Cimmy continued, as if in a trance.

“You’re crazy, girl! Why would we want to eat those? They’re disgusting!” Rahima finished up and cleaned her bowl. “Oh, dear! Here they come,” she commented, and Cimmy didn’t have to turn around to know she was talking about Bertha and Josepha. Apparently some things managed to stay the same after all.

“Well, if it isn’t lazy and friend! No, don’t mind us, princess, we wouldn’t want you to ruin your hands by doing something useful. We wouldn’t want to prevent you from making those ridiculous contraptions of yours.” Bertha started the argument. “Don’t you turn your back on me, you useless rat, every time I look at you you are wasting time on something stupid. If I weren’t a God fearing person I’d question why we bother keeping you around.”

Cimmy had no idea what ridiculous contraptions she had apparently been working on, but was eager to find out as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that was not an immediate option, since they were already late for the fields.

“I’m telling you,” Bertha complained to Josepha, under her breath, to be fair, but loud enough to be overheard, “lazy and stupid, that’s the worst combination of all. What for do we need people like these? I’m telling you, and mark my words, if her kin doesn’t straighten her out, I will. She could do with a good thumping.”

A chill ran down Cimmy’s spine when she realized that the gift of roots, which had made her feel so blessed the day before, was gone with that day’s past; nobody remembered it, except for her, and even she, at this point, wasn’t so sure whether it really happened, or it had been a bad dream.

“Great!” she thought. “That sends me all the way back to useless cockroach. Actually, no. I’m an useless rat now.” She wondered what a rat was, and made a mental note to find one, all the while realizing that her kin considered her a burden again now, that she wasn’t the finder of food anymore, and she sulked at the thought. She hated her life, her future, her fate, and most of all, she hated those stupid thistles that had relegated her to the lowest peg on the totem pole again, those worthless scratchy weeds that irritated her skin to the point of bleeding. The admonition was still nagging her mind, so she approached Rahima to whisper in her ear.

“Can you promise me you’re not going to laugh, or think I lost my mind, if I ask you a question?”

“What question?” Rahima replied, without lifting her eyes from the thistles while she picked them. They were cruel little bastards, with their sharp thorns, one couldn’t take one’s eyes off of them for even a second if one didn’t want one’s skin scraped raw. A scratchy twig got to her, regardless, and she winced out of exasperation and pain. “God, sometimes I wish I’d never been born!” She turned to Cimmy resentful, since the latter was the causative factor of her annoyance.

Now that Rahima was in a rotten mood, Cimmy was even more reluctant to ask her stupid question, but the dice had been cast, so to speak, and now she kind of had to, and therefore she did.

“What is a rat?”

Rahima was furious. Of all the rotten times to pull a prank, Cimmy had to pick this one and make her fingers bleed, so she turned her back at her friend and refused to talk to her for the rest of the day.

“Who’d have thought!” Josepha continued her private conversation with Bertha, loud enough to ensure that everyone in earshot would hear her. “The rat managed to push even this one to her wit’s end! Was bound to happen, sooner or later. Everything she touches is doomed to failure.”

Now I really have to figure out what a rat is, Cimmy thought. She envisioned something disgusting and large, with scaly mandibles and many creepy legs, something poisonous, maybe? What color would it be, she asked herself. If her limited experience was any good as a reference, it would probably have to be the same color as the ground, to make it easier to hide, something dark brown, and slimy, maybe, with disgusting eyes all around its head and gooey greenish innards. She shuddered at the thought, disheartened by the thought that she would be compared to something so vile, but couldn’t shake the wicked expectation that it was poisonous, which, strangely enough, made her feel a little better. If one had to be compared to a giant creepy bug, the least one could hope was that the creature wasn’t completely defenseless. The more she thought about it, the more curiosity got the better of her, so much so that she didn’t even realize her hands were scratched mercilessly by the unyielding thistles, so much so that even Bertha found it in her heart to feel sorry for her, in her own special way, of course.

“This is what happens when you have no brains. Hurts to be you, girl! Thank God I’m not!”

The day was winding down and the scratches on her hands had begun to sting from the irritating thistle juice. Cimmy was worried that the scent of blood might attract that horrible rat creature, whatever it was, and she wouldn’t know how to protect herself from it. What if it was really large, she thought, but then she realized, by the way the villagers talked about them, that they were more a pest than a danger. She hoped she wouldn’t brush against a giant slimy feeler or step on something squishy, and shuddered instinctively at the thought.

Why would God decide to put something so disgusting on this earth, like life isn’t hard enough, she continued her internal monologue, I wonder what they eat. Why, thistles, of course, what else is there to eat, except, of course, us. She brushed off the possibility that rats would be brazen enough to eat human flesh as something outside of the realm or reason.

Deep in thought, she fell behind the others, whom she could see in the distance, and noticed they had almost reached the village. She didn’t want to be alone in the field after nightfall, dreading that one of those disgusting giant insects could crawl all over her feet and cover them in poisonous slime, so she hastened her stride and startled what she at first thought to be a small tumbleweed from underneath the thorny stalks. She drew closer only to witness the wretched fear of a little creature, no bigger than her fist, who was staring at her blankly, waiting for its end. It was covered in soft shiny fur, the color of dust, it had a long pink tail and four delicate pink feet, and it pinned Cimmy with all the apprehension of its two red eyes, round and glossy like polished pebbles. They stared at each other for a while, none of them moving, the little furry creature trying to find a means to escape and Cimmy trying to figure out what it was. For one, it looked like it was made of flesh and blood, she could see its little heartbeat through its skin, it was so terrified, and quite a cute little creature, after one got used to it. She lowered herself slowly, trying to make no sudden moves and hoping the critter wasn’t going to rush past her and disappear. It didn’t. It just stared at her and quivered its long nose, adorned by a luxurious pair of whiskers.

Friendly, Cimmy thought, as her new acquaintance came even closer to sniff her fingers. “Are you hungry, little one?” she asked, and then she pulled what was left of her seed hull cake to offer it a crumb.

The creature jumped on it, ravenously, and then stared at Cimmy, wondering if there was more. A few generous crumbs later its tiny belly was full, and it became more curious about the giant provider of nourishment. It crawled on Cimmy’s lap and clambered all the way up to her shoulder, where it stopped, mesmerized by her hair. It didn’t show any signs of wanting to leave, and the night was fast approaching, so Cimmy decided to take it to the village, excited to show Rahima her find and hoping the cute furry creature would put her friend in a better mood.

It was too late when she finally got home, and everybody was already asleep. Cimmy snuck in her bed in the dark, careful not to dislodge the wrath of Bertha from its slumber, and curled up on the lumpy thistle mattress with her new pet nestled against her belly to keep itself warm.

(The Garden)